Published on August 14, 2019
Supachai Verapuchong is the Managing Director of Phokeethra Group whose business portfolio includes Thai Nakorn Patana, the well known manufacturer of ‘Tiffy’ medication for cold remedy, three Sofitel Hotels in Krabi, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, a Novotel in Phuket and Secretary of Bodhigayaavijalaya 980 Insitute in Kushinagar, India. Dharma guides him in all aspects of his personal and business life. He has been ordained as a monk twice, the first time was for a period of 45 days at Wat Chomprathan Rangsit in Nonthaburi 26 years ago. The second was twelves years ago in India.
Having graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics from Thammasat University he developed a keen interest and understanding for the Indochina or as he prefers to call it Suvanabhumi or Golden Land of Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. “Four of the five follow Theravada Buddhism, Vietnam doesn’t “, says Supachai, “we have the same father; that is the Lord Buddha. No matter what nationality we are, we speak the same language under the Buddhist religion.”
Khunying Boonruen, the wife of former Thai Prime Minister Chatchai Choonhaven was like an auntie to him. In October 1991 they travelled to Phnom Penh together, she introduced Supachai or Odd (his Thai nickname) to Hun Sen the Prime Minster of Cambodia who in turn introduced him to the Defence Minister. That was when Phnom Penh had no cars and the land he asked to lease was occupied by Vietnamese soldiers who had help liberate the city at the end of the Pol Pot regime.
“It’s ironic how circumstances can change a city,” says Supachai, “in the 50’s and 60’s at the height of the French Colonial era, Phnom Penh was the leading city in the region. It was where my parents would go to buy luxury goods.”
“Personal introductions to people of power and influence, helped our success,” he says, “it’s like correctly buttoning your shirt. As a result of that meeting we lease the land on which we built Royal Phnom Penh Hotel in 1993.”
The building of his second hotel in Cambodia, the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa, was his biggest challenge. The road from Poi Pet on the Thai boarder to Siem Reap was no better than a farm track. Although the distance was only 160kms but due the poor conditions the journey took from two to three weeks to transport building materials, each truck costing US$4,000, more than if they were being sent to the States. The added complication was a major coup in Cambodia during the construction period.
Business in Phnom Penh was doing well until the conflict between Thailand and Cambodia resulting in the riots on the night of 29th January 2003 when rioters torched the Royal Thai Embassy, our hotel and Thai Nakorn Patana inventory.”
Enraged protesters took to the streets of Phnom Penh on the night of Jan 29, 2003 and set the Thai Embassy on fire. The riots spread to other Thai-owned properties, including the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel, which was only one kilometer from the embassy. Also destroyed were Thai Nakorn Patana’s medicine inventory and a TV station, for which the company had won a 30-year concession from the Cambodian Ministry of Defense.
Despite the attraction of Angkor Wat the average guest stay was just one or two nights, time enough to see the temples and go. To show that Phokeethra Group was still confident about staying in Cambodia they worked closely with the Ministry of Tourism to promote sports tourism as the way to increase the guest stay. In 2004 the company built a Championship golf course in Siem Reap, which opened in 2006. “To put the golf course on the Global map,” he says, “we hosted the Cambodia Johnnie Walker Open which was only possible due to the support from an old friend Sam Fischer, then the Johnnie Walker Southeast Asia General Manager. We also invested US$ 1million each year in the event.”
At ground zero in Phnom Penh, he rebuilt the hotel in 2005, upgrading it to a five-star property and renaming it the Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra opening in 2011. His third hotel Sofitel Krabi opened in 2006. “We have worked with Sofitel for the past 22 years,” he says. “The brand fit our three hotels and we have a strong working relationship with the regional team of the Accor Group”.