By Lobsang Wangyal
BANGKOK, Thailand, 5 March 2019
The greener grass for Tibetan restaurateur Yangchen, aka Yangkyi la, is not in the US, Canada, or Europe — she found hers in Bangkok’s popular tourist spot Khao San Road. There she runs the Tibet Kitchen Garden & Bar, serving Chinese, Tibetan, Thai and Continental cuisine.
While many Tibetans in India are busy trying to make their way to the West in the hopes of a better future, why choose Bangkok in the East? “There’s both East and West in Thailand”, Yangkyi says. “There is culture in Thailand, people are great, the labour is cheaper, and at the same time there is the comfort of the West.”
The restaurant is a spacious garden lounge — a luxury in the middle of Bangkok — with a cozy bar. The atmosphere is calm and comfortable, just opposite of busy Khao San Road just minutes away. Since it’s tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the Khao San road, it’s a little hard to find, but once you are close, you can make out you have reached it because of the fluttering Tibetan lungta flags. With GPS, it shouldn’t be a problem to find, of course.
Yangkyi says the momos are the favourite seller. They are prepared in all possible varieties. “There are Jain customers. They don’t even eat onions and garlic, and all the vegetables that are roots. We cater even according to their tastes, and they love our momos.”
The Khao San Road restaurant opened in 2017, and is the second of three she has been running in Bangkok. Her third and newest restaurant opened in February 2019.
Her first one, in the Asok area, opened in 2016 and was closed a few months ago. Two of the regular customers there were none other than two of the very few Tibetans living in Bangkok at the time — Lodi Gyari Rinpoche and his wife. Lodi Gyari had been envoy of the Dalai Lama in the US for many years, and had talks with Chinese leaders for resolving the Tibetan issue.
“Rinpoche and his wife used to come to our restaurant quite often,” Yangkyi says. “Their favourite was momos.”
She said that Rinpoche was working on his book. “It was such a shock to hear about his passing recently. But life’s like that. I have started looking at my own life as well, and have started to taking it easy. I take time off from time to time.”
Ploy, a young Thai woman who is a member of the Tibet Support Group Thailand, and her friend, a Chinese-Canadian, listened to Yangkyi’s story, flowing with her life experiences in Thailand, India, and a few other countries. Ploy agreed that the Yangkyi momos are the best in Bangkok. There are a couple other places selling momos, but “those momos didn’t taste right. I have tried them a few times,” says Ploy.
Our conversation broke with a phone call from her cook at the new restaurant. After the call she told us she had opened a new fine-dining restaurant in the city, in Ratchada near Centric Huai Khwang Station. The restaurant is also called Tibet Kitchen. She explained that her cooks are Nepalese from Kathmandu, and her other staff members are Nepalese from Burma, and Thais.
Her customers include Indian residents in Bangkok, local Thai people including her Thai friends, and tourists from far and wide. Her connection with Thailand goes far back, to her school days at the Mussoorie Public School in northern India. “There were many Thai students in various English-medium public schools in Mussoorie. My school also had many Thai students.”
It was through them that she had started visiting Thailand a long time ago, and the bond grew stronger with each visit, leading to the opening of her first restaurant three years ago.
Tibet Kitchen is a joint venture of Yangkyi la and the Tibet Group of Hotels (NEPAL). The managing director of the Group, Tsering Dolkar Lama la, is one of Yangkyi’s closest friends, and Yangkyi says Tibet Kitchen would not have been possible without her support.
Yangkyi’s experience in running restaurants has an even longer history. Her family has one of the most popular restaurants in Mussoorie, called Rice Bowl, and she has been handling that for over two decades. Earlier on in our conversation she was on the phone with staff from that restaurant, taking care of issues about absent staff members.
A Tibetan family who had been living in Bangkok moved to Canada last year, and Yangkyi is the only Tibetan living in Bangkok today. But next week she will be joined by her first cousin Tenzing la and his family, as the Swedish automation company ABB where he is presently assigned as Division Controller in Tokyo has moved him to their Bangkok Head Office. Her excitement rose as she talked about their arrival.
Her Amala and two brothers live in Madison, Wisconsin (US) and her sister in Horgen (Switzerland). She says they are her biggest supporters and she owes everything to them.
“Bangkok is like at home. I am comfortable here. People are nice, and I have many Thai friends. Tibetans and Thais look the same! I’ve never had anyone passing any comments. And I could even make good deals with Thai people. I just have to say ‘chai yen yen‘.” She says there’s no good translation of this versatile Thai phrase, but “cool down” would probably be the closest.
Over the years Tibetans from India and Nepal have been going to Bangkok to purchase their “first copy” merchandise such as clothing and shoes. Most Tibetans from India have been travelling on the Indian government-issued travel document called Yellow Book.
A few Tibetans have found out about the Tibet Kitchen while travelling in Bangkok. “I got a call from a couple of monks some time ago. I wasn’t in the restaurant at the time, but hearing them talk in Tibetan, I right away went to see them. It feels good to be seeing Tibetan monks coming here.”
And one time the monk was her root guru, Jador Rinpoche of Namgyal Monastery. He was on his way from Australia to India via Bangkok. “I went to meet Rinpoche at the Survanabhumi Airport. We were able to meet for like four hours. That was such a blessing.”