Where East meets West

Amiable Frenchman turns heads as he serves up Thai street food with Gallic charm

Samuel Montassier turns heads at the Chalerm Buri intersection in Yaowarat but it's not the yum woonsen, or spicy vermicelli salad, he sells that grabs the attention of passersby.

Frenchman Samuel Montassier cooksyum woonsen (spicy vermicelli salad) at his roadside stall in the Yaowarat area. CHUMPORN SANGVILERT

Rather, it's that a "farang" is selling the popular Thai street food.

French national Samuel and his Thai wife, Pornsuda "Maem" Samohom, push their cart out to the main Chinatown street every day in mid-afternoon.

The couple usually sells out their food by dusk, or within a few hours if there are many customers.

Samuel's calling out to prospective clients in three languages - Thai, English and French - often invites smiles from passersby. It's not uncommon for tourists to ask to take photos with the vivacious farang vendor while he busies himself poaching vegetables and seafood or mixing the ingredients into a spicy dish before serving.

His often-repeated phrase "phom rak mia" or "I love my wife" endears him to local customers.

The 42-year-old Frenchman has lived in Thailand for more than 20 years and took many jobs before he ended up as the farang yum woonsen vendor of Yaowarat.

"I came to Thailand 20 years ago. I went everywhere, to the North, South, Hua Hin, Surat Thani and Ayutthaya.

But now I stay with my wife and work - khai yum woonsen," said Samuel, who calls himself Sam.

He was first engaged in a business taking clothes from Thailand for resale in France. Eight years ago, however, he met his future wife, Maem, at a karaoke bar. He decided to settle down and help his wife earn a living in Thailand.

It was not all smiles and merriment. At first, Samuel worked as a receptionist at a Chinese restaurant in Yaowarat. His ability to speak some Thai was an asset. But his wife wanted to go back to her home in Isan. He went along with her.

"I helped her grow tapioca in Khon Kaen. It was tough. Where I stayed, there was no electricity or tap water. There were few people and not much food. I could adjust. I could eat frogs, rats and bugs. I could carry water from a canal for a bath. I could have lived there but I thought we would do better if we returned to Yaowarat where we used to live," Samuel said.

The couple spent some time thinking about what to do to earn a living. Since Samuel has some skills in cooking French food, and a Thai spicy salad vending cart which usually occupied a spot on the Chalerm Buri intersection did not show up for a long while, Samuel and Maem thought they could try their hands at yum woonsen.The couple's neighbour, a rice-and-curry vendor, helped with a recipe and preparing the dish. At first, Maem was the one who did the cooking. "I sold the yum myself at first. There were only a few customers," Maem said. "Then, Sam wanted to give it a try. I didn't teach him. He just learned by watching what I did," Maem said.

After Sam took over, they sold very well and often finished off all their daily supplies.

It's probably because the sight of a farang selling a local yum is a strange one, Maem remarked. Also, Sam is good with customers. He catches their attention and often jokes with them.

Another element of his charm is Sam always performs a wai with the Thai words for "thank you" or "khob khun krub" to all his customers, whether they are Thai or foreigners.

"I have come to Thailand many times but this is the first time I tasted his yum. It's very good," a Singaporean tourist said.

Samuel said 80% of his customers are Thai, most of them from the Yaowarat area. But there are many also who come from other places - Khao San, Silom and Hua Lamphong, he said.

Samuel's dream is to save enough money to have a child.

"I love Thailand. And I love my wife very much," said the farang vendor who has made a home in Bangkok.

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About the author

Writer: Chumporn Sangvilert