I was hunkered down on the boat, a jacket slung over my head to ward off the sun, but I felt my ears prick up. A well-known Filipino architect-designer opening shop in a foreign land—of course I had to know more about it. I wanted one more unique story wrung out of this trip, which in a few days would have brought me not only to Thailand’s most famous beach destination, but also to Krabi farther south and Bangkok up north.
This was June 2004, and I was with a group of media colleagues from Manila on one of those familiarization tours regularly offered by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (Dave was TAT’s point man in Manila). The tsunami that would wipe out Phuket and much of South Asia was a year-and-a-half away. We’d been invited to check out the country’s popular destinations, with the first two days spent going around the resort city by the sparkling Andaman Sea that, even at its off-peak season, teemed with tourists and visitors.
Nightlife in Phuket was vibrant, the streets safe, the beach still inviting despite the grey waves. Though it can never hold a candle to Boracay, not even to one of the many undiscovered, undeveloped talcum-white beaches in my home province in Sorsogon, Phuket had by this time perfected the art of luring in visitors and making them stay. Most Thais were unreservedly sunny, gentle and accommodating, and those traits, coupled with world-class amenities, made Phuket one big working showcase of their tourism savvy.
But this was all old-hat. My colleagues and I were coming at a time when Phuket, and the less crowded, more upscale Krabi resort in another part of the island, had been written about to death. Our trip required us to write a travelogue piece or two afterwards. That was easy, since we saw some genuinely good stuff to rave about and document in photos (I filed an article, “Two-of-a-kind honeymoon havens,” for the paper. It's not in the archives yet, sigh).
As any competitive journalist would know, however, in a pack of like-minded peers with everyone eventually in danger of coming up with the same stories, it’s imperative to find some other angle, some other unique bent to make your reportage different. I was in Thailand for only five days and my movements were limited by our tour schedule. We had gone to the same restaurants and hot spots, met the same people, poked at the same corners, seen the same sights.
By the time we planed back to Bangkok I was antsy for something—anything—that I could pursue on my own. I wanted an exclusive story. Since nobody seemed to have taken notice of Dave’s offhand comment regarding Budji Layug’s shop in Bangkok, which sounded like a legitimate Lifestyle story that hadn't run in Manila yet, I decided to look into it.
Even if I had no idea how to get there, and even if I had to do it alone since the rest were intent on going shopping for the rest of the afternoon.
I got initial help from the PR/Communications director of the swanky Four Seasons Hotel, which hosted what was called a “progressive lunch”—meaning, we took our appetizers in one restaurant, then the main course in another, and then coffee and dessert somewhere else. All within the hotel, mind you, the better for it to showcase its culinary wares.
Though we were billeted in a competitor hotel, the Amari Watergate, the Four Seasons’ PR director, who turned out to be a Filipina married to a Thai, graciously offered to help me. A long-time Bangkok resident, she spoke the language and wrote the script fluently. She hadn't been to Budji Layug’s place, but she knew the address, so I had her write it down, in Thai script, in my notebook.
I hailed a cab outside the hotel, showed the driver the address, and was on my way.
Mr. Layug’s shop was in Sukhomvit in a district called Thonglor, apparently an upscale commercial-residential area about 45 minutes’ ride from central Bangkok. I’d been warned about the infamous Bangkok traffic, but since I got a cab easily, and I intended to wrap up my planned interview-cum-visit in two hours max, I figured I would be back in my hotel room by 5pm. Night shopping at Suan Lum still loomed ahead. I had enough time.
The silence inside the taxi was oppressive, so I tried to strike up a conversation.
“Do you speak English?,” I asked the driver.
Does “No” sound the same in Thai? I don’t know, but that was how I heard it. More to the point, the cab driver blurted his vehement “No!” while violently drawing back, as if I had said something evil.
“Ay, natakot,” I thought. I shut up for the rest of the ride.
We found the place, I paid the driver who grunted what must have been “Thank you,” and I went in. Mr. Layug was in Manila, but Rocky, the VP for Operations, was in. She was surprised and happy to know I was from a Manila newspaper.
Budji Living, which opened in June 2003, was a showroom and home rolled into one. The second floor housed private quarters, while the spacious ground area was devoted to the distinctive furniture pieces and home accents that Mr. Layug and his Movement 8 co-artists (among them Kenneth Cobonpue, Milo Naval, Ann Pamintuan, Tess Pasola, Tony Gonzales, Luisa G. Robinson, Rene Vidal) designed and manufactured. Pieces by Claude Tayag and Impy Pilapil, as well as fabrics by Jeanne Goulbourn, were also available.
Rocky said Mr. Layug had decided on opening his shop in a residential area rather than in a mall because he wanted to “show the lifestyle and not just the furniture.” The designer had gotten acclaim for his design aesthetic called “contemporary Asian living,” which did away with the traditional clutter of Orientalia and instead emphasized streamlined designs, natural materials, an almost Zen-like ambience evoked by simple lines and earthy colors.
To this end, Budji Living was structured like a regular dwelling, with a living room, dining area, bedroom, a serene garden. In each case, the furniture and accents were arranged to give visitors ideas on how to achieve the same look in their own homes. The artworks, too (abstracts by Lito Carating, paper art by Tess Pasola, among others), complemented the light and airy, almost resort-like feel of Mr. Layug’s design sensibility.
All the furniture pieces on display were designed and executed in Manila and Cebu, and their first-rate quality testified to the bountiful talent and creativity of Filipino designers and crafts people. Mr. Layug’s customer base in Thailand, said Rocky, now ranged from foreign expatriates who’d contract them for full-scale interior design work on their homes, to wealthy locals attracted to one or two pieces of Budji furniture who would ask their advice on how to blend these with their existing home fixtures.
The Thai prime minister’s son had bought a bed, and an ex-prime minister’s residence was also being redone according to the Budji Living philosophy. In other words, Budji Layug’s design house with its all-Filipino band of artists had become a big hit in Thai society.
I had nine pages filled with furious notes, plus loads of pictures, by the time I was done with the interview. It was now 4 pm. I bade Rocky goodbye, walked toward the main highway, and confronted a horrendous sight. The traffic was backed up as far as my eye could see. But at least it’s moving, I told myself. I found another cab and settled in. About an hour later, we were effectively becalmed. The highway had become one giant parking lot. I was stuck in the middle of a city completely unfamiliar to me.
The driver, who also spoke no English, repeatedly pointed his finger upwards. I understood it to mean he wanted me to take the city’s spanking-new LRT. I was frankly getting worried at this time, and the thought of jostling my way through unfamiliar technology didn’t appeal to me. Instead, when I saw a Subway store, I promptly got out.
“Siguro naman me nage-English dito,” I muttered. True enough, the guy at the counter understood me when I ordered a sandwich and requested a map of the city. He brightened up considerably when I told him I came from the Philippines.
“Philippines! I always want to go to Philippines!,” he said. That eased my fears somewhat.
Armed with a map, I began walking down the clogged highway, stopping only now and then to search for landmarks. Dusk was setting in, but the bright lights of big hotels and establishments along the way helped me breathe more easily. I walked for nearly seven blocks, then, tired, hailed another cab waiting by a curb. The driver sullenly nodded when I showed him the address on my hotel room card.
It took us some two hours more to reach the hotel. My colleagues had been looking for me, since it was already 8 pm. I had endured what the concierge later said was the worst traffic in Bangkok in months.
But I was happy. I had my Budji Layug story.
Back in Manila a few days later, I went to the boss, confident and ebullient.
“I have another story aside from the travel piece,” I said. “Budji Layug has this very successful shop in Bangkok, and I was able to visit--”
“Huh? That’s Thelma’s story this Friday,” she said (referring to Thelma San Juan, who writes the “Life-Styled” column for Beauty & Fashion every Friday, and a friend of Mr. Layug).
“Yeah, that’s what she wrote about in her column for Friday. Lito’s editing it na.”
My story never got written, and the pictures never saw print. Until now.