Samui Wining & Dining
Why Here?

Just what was it that brought Michelle Ho, entrepreneur,
businesswoman and tea fanatic to Samui?

 

Why Here?As you pass Namcha, right by the big arch at the entrance to Fisherman’s Village in Bophut, you’ll find yourself slowing down and peering inside. There are many things that start grabbing your attention, with the odd gleam and flashes of colours and textures. Not to mention the ever-so-comfy nest of sofas that’s perched a little way up above street-level and right at the front!

 

But it’s only when you’re intrigued enough to stop and wander inside that everything suddenly snaps into place. The wall-mounted collection of colourful ceramic teapots. The eight-foot high decorative African samovar. The Japanese tea cameo complete with antique Samurai armour. The dozens of glass tea jars on the counter and – permeating everything – the musky, spicy wafts of fragrance that ebb and flow with the pulse of the humming ceiling fans. This is essentially a tea house, although it offers a wider and more intoxicating selection of beverages, too, as well as featuring a tantalising food menu. And it’s also a sort of museum: well, if not a real one, then certainly a shrine to tea and its associated paraphernalia. And everything here, the concept, the décor, the artefacts and curios, not to mention the cheerful and laid-back atmosphere, bears the stamp of one person, world-traveller and now Samui-resident, Michelle Ho.

 

The saga of how Filipina Michelle ended up here on Samui is as complex and colourful as she is herself. It was a long and winding path and with almost as many ‘downs’ on the journey as there were ‘ups’. Suffice to say that, after graduating from the University of the Philippines, Michelle and her family made the move away from the Makati region of the Philippines to Hong Kong. This was where she met Stuart, the man she was later to marry. After a lingering romance, he was posted to a senior position with the media and advertising moguls Saatchi & Saatchi in Singapore. Michelle went with him and they married there in 1980. Several years later he broke away from the company and set up on his own with Michelle. And, to cut a long story short, the very successful agency they established was sold in 1997, leaving them both in a state of financial grace.

 

During this long period in Singapore they travelled extensively throughout Asia; sometimes on business but more often combining this with short holiday breaks, too. In 1992, finding themselves in Thailand with a week to spare, Michelle booked a break to Chiang Mai. Upon looking up the tickets, Michelle recalls Stuart’s reaction. “He blurted out, ‘… where the hell’s that!’.” She grinned. “And I had no idea either. Somehow we’d been given tickets to a place called Koh Samui. So we went with the flow and came here instead. I fell in love with the island immediately. And over the next few years, we took breaks on Samui at every opportunity. This was probably one of the happiest periods of my life.

 

It has to be pointed out that Michelle’s father is Chinese. And one of the things that she grew up with, and that became firmly embedded in her life from an early age, was the soothing ritual of tea. “Tea, tea, tea,” she mused. “Somehow tea became the answer to most things. Got a problem? Make tea. Have to make a decision? Get out the tea things. My parents rarely argued. But I was able to read both of their moods, even though I couldn’t hear what they were saying from another room, simply by listening to the rattle of the cups and the changes in the rhythms of their spoons. And so tea, and the ritual of making it, became part of my life. Whenever I need the space to think these days I still make tea. Except that now I mostly make it for other people.

 

Michelle and Stuart settled in Australia and, whilst he began a new career as a travel writer, she indulged her passion for travelling. She’d already long-since begun to collect tea-related curios and memorabilia on her jaunts but now, unfortunately, ill-health became the motivation. “I swear by Chinese medicines,” she confided. “And I spent a long time researching and investigating their properties. And everywhere I went I’d find another little tea-gem to collect. They all have a story and if you laid them out in a line you’d have a map of my whole life.

 

It was at the end of 2008 that circumstances, together with an improvement in her health, compelled Michelle to return to Samui, this time to stay, albeit without Stuart. “It was a turning point in my life,” she explained. “All the time spent on Samui was full of good memories and it seemed to call to me. I already knew that I was going to open a tea house of some sort but the question was where. Then this spot came up in Fisherman’s Village and I instantly knew it was perfect. I felt that I’d come home, somehow. My daughter, Jasmine, is 11, loves the island and is happy here. And my son, Justin, is at university in New York but comes here every chance he has. Since I’ve settled here I’ve made some joyous friends, not the least of whom is my wonderful business partner, Khun Jae.

 

She paused thoughtfully for a moment, gazing into the distance. “But it’s not only the magical lure of Samui,” she continued, “it’s just as much the people that you find here.” She turned towards me, her normally twinkling eyes serious. “Nobody pries into my life; they accept me for what I am. I feel appreciated. People, both Thai and Western, are warm and sharing. In many ways we all support each other.” She beamed again. “But it’s one of those things that’s beyond words. It’s something shared and unspoken, unlike tea,” she chuckled. “Or the tea cocktails I now make or the plans for weekly tea and pampering sessions. When it comes to ways to have fun with tea and make the most of it, then there’s plenty of ideas to be shared and many voices to be heard – hopefully,” Michelle concluded, “That’s why I’ll still be here with the expanding memorabilia of my life surrounding me for a good many more years to come – and with everybody warmly welcome here, at Namcha.

 

Rob De Wet

 


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