Meet Gus Gus Wattanasiritham, the charming and courageous entrepreneur fronting the fight for disability tourism in Thailand.
Tall, congenial, and carrying herself with a confident stride, it’s hard to believe that Sarunnaphat “Gus Gus” Wattanasiritham was once wheel-chair bound. You’d have to be especially discerning to spot the telltale signs. For one, she cannot wear high heels, and takes special care in never turning her back to reach for something behind her. Yet, despite her bubbly charms and cheerful demeanour, the businesswoman tells us that she’d spent 5 of years suffering from a near-debilitating injury from getting rammed into by a supercar — an injury that played a large part in shaping who she is now. Life-shattering as it may be, the incident far from broke her will, instead, it gave her the courage to emerge stronger than ever, armed with her mind set on making a difference. Today, the entrepreneur stands at the forefront of the fight for disability tourism in Thailand. Here are a few things we love about her.
She loves food, and knows a good few things about it too.
Few things are as heart-warming as being someone who really, truly, appreciates a good dish, and on that front, Gus Gus definitely shines. “Food is a small escape for me, since we all can’t go on holiday every day,” she explains. “On days when I’m really upset, walking into a restaurant really helps. Food offers a healing function, even if it’s just that small period of time when you are eating it. If it’s also delicious, it truly is a joy!” An undying lover of food, Gus Gus and her business partner Apitana Jirawongkraisorn are the founders of Amata Organize, a company that specialises in culinary consulting and private luxury events. The organisation has garnered a huge repute for chef’s table dinners, and various engagements with Michelin-starred chefs.
Gus Gus has managed to turn her favourite pastime of eating, into events such as award-winning chef pop-ups and educational Omakase sessions — all aided, of course, by her wide net of connections with renowned restaurants and cooking personalities. In light of the Covid-19 situation, she’s recently launched MixMe Pinto, a food delivery services that offers tiffin meal boxes that include everything from fine-dining to delicious street food staples. Standing out from other food delivery middlemen, MixMe Pinto delivers via van, and also includes a charity function, where customers can opt to send meals to monks or medical teams working difficult night shifts.
In fact, she’s somewhat of a gourmet influencer.
With over 11k followers on her @guzguz_official IG account, Gus Gus has gained quite a following through her food adventures. Despite that, she doesn’t believe in only going for the Michelin-starred spots. “I’m not a star collector,” she insists, “it doesn’t matter if a place has received a Michelin star or not, because what I prefer is food that locals like to eat. I appreciate chefs who can truly pull out the flavours of the raw ingredients in order to showcase local tastes. It’s like how eating food by Alain Passard can make you imagine the street alps.”
While not a star collector, she definitely has her eyes peeled for quality. She recalls helping her grandmother in the kitchen as a child, and having a palette that even then, was hard to please. “My mother told me that I would immediately pull a face if I didn’t like the taste of something I put in my mouth,” she tells us with a laugh, reminiscing on how very few restaurants back then managed to make food that she liked better than her own grandmother’s. While that list today remains rather short, she points out that Le Du is one restaurant that manages to consistently impress, with their innovative Thai food and desserts.
She’s first and foremost, a survivor.
“I was riding my bicycle when a car rammed into me,” Gus Gus tells us, when asked about the accident that rendered her wheelchair-bound for five years. “It wasn’t a hard hit, but the impact of my back against the sidewalk pavement was severe. It hurt for a few seconds before I couldn’t feel anything anymore.” While she initially thought she’d broken bones, an MRI scan told her that her intervertebral disc was compressing her nerves — main nerves that run from one’s backside to one’s toes, thus explaining why she couldn’t move her legs or feet at all.
Surgery was deemed too risky, so Gus Gus was left with the option of possibly walking again in half a decade — through intense physical therapy. She lived in the hospital for six months, getting steroid and anti-inflammatory injections every week to improve her condition. “On the day I could finally get up and I first saw myself, I screamed because I had gotten fatter, and had a double chin,” she admits, “I cried because I didn’t know that steroids could lead to weight gain. The doctor then asked me, ‘Do you want to be fat, or do you want to not be able to walk for the rest of your life?’”
She made it through on willpower.
Hit with such a situation, many would have crumbled from the adversity, and even Gus Gus admits to initially feeling like she’d lost all hope. “I was depressed and worried about not being able to one day get a good job now that I was handicapped, but the doctor talked to me every day to help me cope. I realised that my mind and hands still worked, so I needed to find a job that required using my brain.” Having graduated from SIIT at Thammasat University, before winning a scholarship to the University of Munich, Gus Gus sent hundreds of CVs to companies in Germany after graduating, stating clearly that she was disabled. Miraculously, she scored a job at the BMW headquarters in sales marketing, despite having to get around in a wheelchair or her two canes.
After a year at BMW, Gus Gus went on to pursue a master’s degree in financial engineering at the University of Birmingham, where she was told by therapists that if she lost weight and built up more back muscles to support her disc, her chances of walking again could be sped up. It was through will alone that she was able to heal as fast as she did, dropping from 120 to 85 kg during her time at the university. She proudly cites her mother, Nuansii Wattanasiritham, as the true inspiration behind where she is today. She points out that her mother only graduated from vocational school, but quickly rose through the ranks, and today sits as the regional director at Goodyear.
“She’s probably the only woman and regional director in a global company that doesn’t even have a bachelor’s degree. She’s managed to come this far and doesn’t even have the credentials of a university, unlike myself. It made me think, ‘why wouldn’t I be able to fight too?’ It was definitely one of the things that made me want to be able to walk again.”
She’s fighting to create a supportive community for the disabled in Thailand.
If anything, her time spent in Germany and the UK only served to highlight the general lack of concern for the disabled during her visits home to Thailand. She recalls clearly seeing non-handicapped people parking in the disabled parking lot at the airport, and an instance on a BTS ride where she literally could not get down to the street at On Nut station as there was no elevator or escalator for her. As she could only walk on flat surfaces and couldn’t lift her feet, she had to take the train back to a BTS station linked to a mall, so that she could get back down to ground level.
It was these inconveniences and injustices that sparked her involvement in rallying for proper handicapped parking at Suvarnabhumi airport, along with other urban areas and buildings, insisting that it was a basic right for handicapped people. Through an online campaign via Change.org, she later met renowned social activist Manit Saba Intharapim — the face behind Accessibility is Freedom, an organisation that promotes awareness on human rights, equal chance of opportunity, and social responsibility. Through her interactions with Saba, Gus Gus realised there was much to be done in Thailand to improve public awareness on these issues. She explains how in Germany, there was a high level of awareness and respect for the disabled, that was present in the education system as well. “Starting in kindergarten, they really teach children the importance of sharing and being responsible to others. The law may be a guideline of things you can or cannot do, but deep down it is within your own moral compass to choose whether you will do something [kindly] or not.”
She plans to push for ‘disability tourism’ in Thailand.
In 2019, Thailand was visited by over 39 million tourists, and to Gus Gus, it’s apparent that it is crucial to make popular destinations, public transportation, and basic facilities more accessible to the disabled. “It’s not just handicapped people or tourists who benefit,” she explains, “as it serves the elderly, pregnant women, and children too. Things like knobbled pavements for the blind are also instrumental in teaching children where they are supposed to be walking.”
To her, making a difference isn’t about waiting around. It’s about acting.
While proceeds from her company’s charity galas often go to these developments, Gus Gus also works closely with organisations and malls to offer her input on designing truly functional amenities, from reachable flush buttons on toilets, to parking spaces with pathways wide enough for wheelchairs. She aspires to open a boarding school for orphans and underprivileged children in the future.
“I also don’t think we should view this as something only the government should be responsible for. I think it’s something that should be everyone’s responsibility together, in order to build a better society — be it private companies or individuals.”
Her main thing is to stay positive, and always look ahead.
Always maintaining a positive outlook, Gus Gus reflects that not wallowing on her limitations, and dedicating herself to work can be helpful in moving forward. “I feel that every morning is a new beginning and I can’t just be sad every day. There’s lots to do and I love to work. Work helps me forget everything [unpleasant]. Luckily, I was still brave enough to apply to jobs and to do things like normal people. It was the worst day of my life when I got in that car accident, but sometimes I feel that maybe I got hit so I can help out and make a difference”
Find out more about Sarunnaphat “Gus Gus” Wattanasiritham in Prestige Thailand’s May 2020 issue, available in leading bookstores nationwide. Or purchase it online here.
Photographer: Apichart Chaichulla
Stylist: Ammara Yavilas
Makeup & Hair: Nattanun Nitiareeroj
Editorial Coordinator: Rattanachai Chaipornsantikul
Jewellery: Tiffany & Co.
Location: Anantara Siam Bangkok Hotel