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Mom Luang Tri Devakul – a Thai original Little did ten year old Mom Luang Tri Devakul know when he agreed to fly to America that it would be 18 years before he would return to live in Thailand. “I was very interested in flying in an airplane but didn’t realize that I would find myself in a new culture where I didn’t speak the language and would be away from my family for so long,” says a smiling Mom Tri. His family had a tradition of traveling and living abroad. Descended from King Mongkut, Rama IV, the first Thai monarch that valued relations with the Western world, Mom Tri’s grandfather was in charge of the Foreign Ministry during the reign of King Chulalongkorn, Rama V. He worked closely with Dr. Francis Sayre, an American adviser to the Royal Court, to abolish extraterritorial treaties. The two men and their families became close friends. Mom Tri’s father was sent to study in Boston where he stayed with the Sayre family and in 1952, the young Mom Tri followed in the family tradition and went to live in Washington, DC, where a senior member of the Sayre family was the Dean of Washington Cathedral. “Though I didn’t speak English, I was very impressed with my new life. I remember shaking hands with the newly inaugurated American President, Dwight Eisenhower, and I spent many fond hours playing in the construction site of the emerging new Washington Cathedral,” he remembers. “It’s probably where I developed my interest in architecture and building.” The young Mom Tri expressed his artistic talents as a child spending many youthful hours building sculptures and designing palaces. But when his father advised that he pursue a career in medicine, he agreed and enrolled in Dartmouth College. Four years later he graduated with a Pre-Med degree. But instead of pursuing a medical career, he applied and was accepted into the Harvard School of Design where he majored in Architecture. “I had been designing sculptures and objects all my young life so it seemed like a real opportunity to study architecture with talent like the founder of the Bauhaus School, Walter Gropius, who was on the faculty of Harvard at the time,” he continues. “I enjoyed my studies at Harvard but never lost sight that essentially I felt myself to be a sculptor, a more personal artist, who prefered to work on my own design rather than deal with the demands of clients and the restrictions that impinge on the creativity of a design.” After graduation, he returned to live in Thailand in 1970. By this time, most of his life had been spent in America and he found his native country a wealth of interesting architectural details. During this period, many of the traditional Thai temples made of teak wood, were being taken down and replaced with temples constructed of concrete and decorated with mirrored tiles. Mom Tri is credited with saving much of the teak wood decorative Buddhist motifs, some of which he has artfully used in his numerous projects around the country. In the early 1970s, he was an Architecture professor at Chulalongkorn University and worked with Dr. Sumet Jumsai in their own architectural firm. But when Prince Sanid Rangsit commissioned him to design a hotel at a deserted beach on Phuket, he decided to give up his teaching and pursue the potential of a design career. “In the 1970s, Phuket had very little infrastructure. Kata Beach was virtually cut off from the rest of the island with impassible roads and swamps. We couldn’t get the funding to build the hotel as the banks said there were no international flights to the island,” Mom Tri remembers. “Eventually, I was able to negotiate with Club Med to build on the beach and with that in hand, Thai Airways agreed to fly to Phuket and that satisfied the banks.” The next ten years were productive for Mom Tri. He designed both the Australian and Indian Embassies and the United Nations Conference Center in Bangkok. And on Phuket, he was able to acquire considerable tracts of land that had little value at the time. “It was good timing. Then, land near the beach had little or no value as the local people could not grow rice, or rubber or pineapple so close to the sea,” he explains, “and there was not yet any tourism so I was fortunate to pick up the land where Le Meridien Phuket and Le Royal Meridien Phuket Yacht Club now sit for a good price.” He worked hard to get the necessary permission to build Phuket’s first five star resorts. There were no requirements for building permits back then but he did have to negotiate with the government who had a master plan for developing Phuket and tourism was not part of that plan. He had strong support from General Prem Tinsulanonda who was about to become Prime Minister and who believed in Mom Tri’s vision of tourism as a means to improve the lives of Phuket residents. Mom Tri became Thailand’s youngest Senator in the 1980s to better work on promoting tourism in the country. While he spent many years building his successful resorts, Mom Tri himself lived on a hilltop which separates Kata Yai and Kata Noi’s beaches. He spent happy times returning to work on his sculptures which eventually came to enliven the gardens of his retreat. “Back then, the only people who came to the beaches were hippies who sunbathed and played in the sea in the nude. So many of my sculptures from that time are the human form in celebration or repose,” he explains. “My own home was a collection of local materials which over the years has been extended and improved and now has become Villa Royale where I invite people to stay and experience my many years of collecting art in buildings that express my interpretation of contemporary Thai design.” Mom Tri has always drawn admirers from the Royal family to his home. He decided to build a small hotel at Kata Beach which he named The Boathouse to give his many Royal friends and family a place to call their own while visiting Phuket. Soon this boutique resort, which is now called Mom Tri’s Boathouse, became internationally famous as the signature address for fine cuisine and excellent wine. It was recently awarded the Best of Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator magazine, the only top award given in Thailand. Besides building extraordinary resorts, Mom Tri has contributed to the development of the international community by initiating the famous King’s Cup Regatta, in honor of King Bhumibol, Rama IX, which draws hundreds of avid yacht enthusiasts to Phuket each December. He is also the architect and Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Prem Tinsulanonda Center for International Education north of Chiang Mai. “The Prem Center promotes living and learning as a lifetime experience. With 500 full time students, the Center has also welcomed over 10,000 international students who have come to learn about becoming global citizens with studies in culture and the environment,” he says. Mom Tri has ongoing development projects including stunning villas dotted around Phuket but he spends much of his time in Bangkok with his wife, Khun “Tam” Devakul and with their son, Trithep. And quite often he returns to his early interest in creating art, both sculpture and painting.
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