Thanaruek Laoraowirodge
PASSPORT Magazine|April 2017

It’s a perfect January night in Bangkok, the weather is hovering around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, there is a pleasant breeze, and barely enough humidity to fog an ice-cold glass or camera lens.

Lawrence Ferber

I’m waiting on a dock along the Chao Phraya River, and with so many Bangkok landmarks and icons flanking the scenic waterway (the bell-shaped Wat Arun, the majestic and colorful Grand Palace, the neo-Palladian Bangrak Fire Station, and stately Mandarin Oriental, it’s a compulsory setting for a leisurely dinner cruise. Alas, by and large the only options here have entailed gaudy, neon-lit, disco-pulsing, cheese-o-rama river vessels (with crappy food) that make locals and expats wince in horror.

Enter Thanaruek Laoraowirodge, the openly gay Thai restaurateur whose four-year-old New York City venue, Somtum Der (www.somtumder.com), won a Michelin star in 2016 for its authentic, spicy, and downright inexpensive cuisine from Thailand’s northeastern Isan region.

Launched in December 2016, his brand-new, 40-seat Supanniga Cruise (www.supannigacruise.com) affords a lovely, tasteful, nightly dinner experience that makes the most of the Chao Phraya and sunset.

Although reluctant and wary of Bangkok dinner cruises, my college friend Stuart, a longtime Thailand-based American expat, boards the long, mustard-brown, two-level vessel. A gay couple at a table near us is soaking in the romance and snapping selfies to preserve the moments.

Our six-course set menu includes a tom yum goong yai soup with giant prawn, a succulent cha muang leaf beef curry, crabmeat hor mok, and superb mango sticky rice doused with coconut cream. A proper cocktail bar serves libations created by Bangkok’s mixology-driven Vesper bar/restaurant (honored as of “Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2016”), some of which incorporate Thailand’s Kristall gin. The service is elegant and exceptional, and without a blaring, tacky soundtrack to boot.

“You know, this is amazing,” Stuart concedes about two hours later, as the cruise is wrapping up. “I’m a fan.”

Supanniga Cruise, which also offers a daily hour-long drinks and nibbles cruise at 4:45 P.M., is the latest in a string of nonstop successes, and gay crowd favorites, from Laoraowirodge, a travel-addicted, effervescent fellow who casually goes by nickname Khun Eh, the Thai equivalent of “Mister Eh.”

His Supanniga Group umbrella includes Bangkok’s original, still-thriving Somtum Der, opened in 2011 within the super-gay Silom district; a 2016 Saigon, Vietnam location Supanniga Eating Room, where the menu is drawn from his grandmother’s Eastern Thai culinary repertoire; two Bangkok locations (trendy Thonglor and swish Sathorn); shopping center eateries Eat All Thai and Eat Rice and Noodles; and Supanniga Cruise. Beijing, China will see both Somtum Der and Supanniga Eating Room openings later in 2017, a second NYC Somtum Der is planned for 2018, and Europe is also being considered for sibling venues.

“Restaurant business was never in my head when I was young,” he tells me.

Born in the Isan city of Khon Kaen, Laoraowirodge initially pursued economics at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University and, traveling stateside, New York University. Once he earned his master’s degree at the latter he returned to Thailand, where he and ten friends, all yearning for the NYC-style bistro food and atmosphere that they loved so much overseas, decided to try their hand at such a restaurant, opening Minibar Royale in Bangkok circa 2010 (it closed in 2016).

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