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The Thai Life

The only Sea Ray dealer in Thailand is a heavy hitter with a soft touch

story and photos by Jamie Elvidge

It's hard to have a serious conversation when your lunch is staring back at you. Forget the chicken feet on my plate, it's the eyes floating in my soup that are messing with me. I'm having a traditional lunchroom meal with the team at Seat Boat Co., Ltd., Thailand's only Sea Ray dealer.

SEAT is an acronym for Southeast Asia Trading, which also happens to be one of the largest fiberglass boat builders in the region, offering everything from police boats to 80-foot yachts. I'm a guest of the empire's heiress slash product manager slash visionary, Ruangrut Bencharit. A very hip, business-minded powerhouse, she's the kind of woman who would never cringe at something silly…like fish eyes.

I've been traveling in Thailand for 10 days, but I'm still learning the nuance of the bow. I do know enough to call Ruangrut by her Thai nickname, "Tukta" (almost every Thai person has a short, easy-to-pronounce name for everyday use). The elaborate meal we're sharing has been prepared right here in the employee kitchen of the Bencharit family's Seat Boat store in Pattaya, about a two-hour drive south of Bangkok. The manufacturing facility, run by Tukta, is also here in Pattaya, while there are additional Seat stores in Bangkok and Phuket. Other guests at the table include key sales, engineering and design staff, as well as one of Seat Boat's most loyal customers, Komol Pornpattanasavai, owner of Samed Resorts.

"He's already purchased more than 20 boats from me," explains Tukta, "to use as rental and dive boats for his customers. But his new 44 Sedan Bridge is for taking his high-end guests on luxury excursions." Sea Ray boats were a rarity in Thailand until 2004, when in an effort to support tourism, the government lifted its heavy import tax on boats, which has been as high as 200 percent. Tukta saw the moment as an opportunity to expand her family's business—which since the 1970s has been the sole importer of Mercury Marine engines in Thailand—and has become Sea Ray's first dealer in the kingdom. Tukta sold 11 cruisers and two yachts her first year.

"I trust her," Komol tells me while recalling his Sedan Bridge order. "She talked about the boat for 15 minutes, and I was ready to buy it." Although Komol may look the part of an international playboy, he is a truly dedicated businessman. The skilled entrepreneur opened his first resort on Samed Island 10 years ago and now has five properties there, each offering a different "holiday lifestyle," but all upscale, ranging from three to five stars. The island, a few hours from Bangkok via car and boat transfer, is a highly restricted national park, so Komol's "getaways" are true escapes from the tropical South Coast's intense tourist scene.

He ordered the 44 Sedan Bridge because he knew it would add substance to his fleet, which is already 50 boats strong. "I wanted a luxury yacht to impress the guests," Komol says. "Sixty to 70 percent of my customers are extremely upscale, and I wanted a boat to reflect that." The Sedan Bridge will be used for special events and outings. Currently, Komol runs a 28 Sundancer to transport elite customers from resort to resort, a boat he favors for its "look, design and finish."

I know it's rude not to finish my fish eyes and chicken feet, but the rest of the lunch is so delicious, I can honestly say I can't eat another bite. Perfect timing to embark on a traditional water-skiing adventure, a sport I haven't attempted since childhood. It's an hour-long cruise out to the Near Islands, which Tukta favors for water play. Thankfully, the ride gives me time to recover from my lunch and hear more of the Seat Boat story. Tukta's grandfather was a very successful rice merchant, dealing under the same Southeast Asia Trading moniker. Boating was a passion passed down to his children, particularly Tukta's father. "When I was 2 years old," she says, "my father opened a small shop on Beach Road in Pattaya and began selling and servicing Mercury engines and parts. Pretty soon, he thought, 'I should build a boat to go with these engines.'" Five years after opening, Seat Boat added a small factory to its operation. The Thai Royal Navy was its first customer.

Today Seat Boat builds models ranging from eight-foot skiffs to 80-foot mega yachts, including utilitarian vessels for government services like the marine ambulance, police and fire departments. The Queen's yacht is an especially luxurious example: a 38-foot affair with an interior decorated using Her Majesty's favored Thai silks.

Tukta tells me she partnered with Sea Ray because she "wanted a piece of the cake." It was a strategy her father didn't immediately agree with, but watching his daughter sell the premium boats so easily makes him proud of her foresight and ambition. "I wanted to sell a first-class brand," she says, "because our reputation here in Thailand is for quality. I also wanted to sell the brand I knew I could sell, a 'world brand' like Sea Ray." A perfect brand for a perfect boating environment. For those who haven't dipped a toe in the Bay of Thai, it's like sinking into postcard scenery: tropical islands, warm, clear water and some of the best fishing and dive sites in the world.

As we drop anchor in the waters around the Near Islands and jump from her yacht, one of the "boat boys" pulls up in the bow rider that's been heeling us. As a translation, "boat boys" doesn't really do justice to these honored and trusted employees, some of whom have been with the company since Tukta was a baby. In fact, I am struck by the way Thai culture and a predominantly Buddhist faith encourage respectful treatment for employees at every level of the business. Even the people with the most menial jobs in the Bencharits' boatyard eat alongside managers at the traditional lunches, "And if they have a problem, or need anything," Tukta adds, "they know they can ask for help and get it. It's like a family that way."

I watch Tukta shoot across the open water on her single ski like the popper on a whip. It doesn't look easy, but since I'm feeling shamefaced for not eating my chicken feet, I'm going to give it all I have. Besides, she has already told me we're not going back to shore until I've made at least one clean loop into open water and back. About five not-so-clean loops later my legs are convulsing, but I'm riding high. As I whirl past my grinning hostess I take a hand off the bar to shove a triumphant fist in the air, but it's a move I'll soon regret. Like some Peggy Fleming on water skis, I do a split jump into the rushing sea. And suddenly I see fish eyes again, only this time they're still attached to the fish.

Five minutes later I'm sprawled across the yacht's loungers for the cruise back to shore. The sun is low, the wind, a sultry caress. Tukta's on the phone with her favorite spa to see if it can accommodate a water-logged friend, and the boat boy is mixing us cocktails. Ahhh. This might not be life in Thailand, but it's certainly the Thai Life to me.