Cover Story: Nai Lert's Naphaporn Bodiratnangkura Comes Full Circle
Businesswoman Naphaporn Bodiratnangkura, fourth-generation scion of the Nai Lert family, cites her late grandmother, Thanpuying Lursakdi Sampatisiri, as a major influence and inspiration in her personal and professional life. Although she passed away a decade ago, the former government minister, hotelier and business titan is constantly in her granddaughter’s thoughts. “She was someone I looked up to, an idol that I was in awe of and wanted to be. She achieved so much in so many different fields,” smiles the chief executive officer of Nai Lert Park Development and managing director of Sampatilert Company.
Lek, as Naphaporn is known, is very aware that she has big shoes to fill. Her story begins in 1980 when at the age of 12 she and elder sister Duangpatra (she also has a younger sister and brother) were packed off to England to attend Queenswood, an all-girls boarding school. “It was a huge culture shock to say the least,” she laughs. “In Thailand I was a spoilt child. I didn’t have to do anything for myself, not even make my own bed. But when I got to the UK I had to wash my own clothes, keep my room tidy, muck in with cleaning duties and generally pull my weight. I learned to stand on my own feet which, I suppose, was the whole point of sending me abroad. I learned to explore life and live it without depending on my family.”
Not, Lek admits candidly, that her 12-year-old self really appreciated her situation at the time. “I hated boarding school to begin with and I couldn’t speak a word of English. I was very homesick,” she chuckles. “But I had to learn because it was survival for an Asian kid, otherwise I’d get bullied.” She recalls picking up enough English to buy sweets at the supermarket and cup noodles from her friends. “I couldn’t eat just mashed potatoes all day.” That said, living in England did toughen her up and give her the opportunity to explore other aspects of school life. In particular, she turned to sports. “I learned how to play tennis, badminton and hockey. Netball too. I took them up because I needed to do something instead of crying in the corner.”
As time went on Lek not only survived but thrived, making new friends as she grew into her independence abroad. So settled was she by the time she finished school that it was inevitable she would stay in the UK for higher studies. This took the form of a degree in hotel management at the University of Surrey. Her choice of subject was calculated she says. “It was in my blood. And besides, I thought I would pass with flying colours because I had the general manager back home to help me,” she giggles, referring to the general manager of the then family-run Hilton International Bangkok at Nai Lert Park. “Thanks to him, I graduated with honours.” University wasn’t all about studying for the young lady though, who admits the call of parties and hanging out with friends was always more preferable to studious pursuits. “I used education as an excuse to be abroad because back in Thailand I knew that I couldn’t be myself,” she explains.
Frankly, I just came back and enjoyed the scene, the nightlife. I was a social butterfly.
Following her graduation Lek spent the next 12 months taking a fashion design course at the Parsons School of Design in New York. She recalls the year-long sojourn as a montage of parties and road trips. “It was a very liberating time, even more so than going to boarding school. New York is a place that teaches you to become confident in your own shoes.”
It was at this point though that the realities of life came knocking. In early 2002 Lek received a call from her mother Sanhapit regarding the hotel, which had come to the end of its 20-year management contract with the Hilton group. Mum wanted her daughter home to help the family face the future together. “To be honest though, my brain didn’t join the business but my body did,” Lek says of returning to Bangkok to become a trainee in the purchasing department. In fact, her brain was still stuck in party mode and she admits working for a living didn’t loom large in her thoughts. “Frankly, I just came back and enjoyed the scene, the nightlife. I was a social butterfly,” she continues, describing a regular routine of having lunch with grandma at the hotel before getting ready to go out to events.
Then I hit 30 in 2010 and grandma passed away. I took stock, thought about her example of her life and threw myself entirely into the family business.
Shortly after Lek joined the business, the family signed a management agreement with Raffles Swissotel and the young lady was made aware that it was time for her to face up to familial responsibilities. “My parents were worried, I think, but they are not the type of people to scold. Grandma, on the other hand, when I was behaving badly or partying too much would sit me down and say ‘Lek, you carry the family name, so you have to consider us too. It’s not just about you’. To this day I consider myself very fortunate to have been raised in a family that has given me so much freedom and opportunity to be myself—no demands or commands,” she smiles.
Lek particularly revelled in the company of her grandmother. “She could be intimidating and she didn’t suffer fools gladly but I always found her warm and loving. We were really close. In fact, she was a very liberal and modern person for her age. Something I’ll always be proud of is managing to visit her every day in hospital where she spent the last two years of her life. Despite being a party girl, I made sure I got to spend that quality time with her and it was priceless.”
The party girl sobriquet would be at its zenith when the young woman earned the dubious title of the Paris Hilton of Thailand—which also chimed with Lek’s hotel connections. Then, after almost a decade of fun, she suddenly realised she’d had enough. She laughs, “I think I partied enough for two lifetimes in my 20s. Then I hit 30 in 2010 and grandma passed away. I took stock, thought about her example of her life and threw myself entirely into the family business.” Her professional journey over the following years transitioned through the marketing and public relations departments to the assistant managing director’s chair and now the CEO’s hot seat.
Perhaps with her candle-burning youth in mind, Lek also took up yoga and even opened a yoga studio, a venture she admits isn’t making much money now. “It started from just wanting to get into shape personally. Sadly, with the way things have gone with the virus, it really isn’t profitable anymore, particularly as home exercise has taken off and lifestyle demands have changed.”
On a personal level she has a down-to-earth view of love and marriage. “Been there, done that,” she scoffs. “I have been married and divorced and now I’m happily in a relationship.” She is referring to partner James Davies-Yandle. The two met in Bangkok five years ago at the Swissotel Nai Lert Park Hotel prior to its sale. She can’t help but laugh at the recollection. “James is in the sports business and he brought some very famous football players to Thailand to stay at the hotel. He inspected the rooms first and decided that they weren’t good enough for the players and needed refurbishing. He made enough of a fuss for the general manager to call me down. Let’s just say I got really peeved and in summary told him that if the rooms were not good enough, he was most welcome to f**k off to another hotel!” The two negotiated on the spot but Lek admits that due to her mother’s intervention she lost the battle. “He got what he wanted. The footballers stayed in freshly renovated rooms. And we became an item.”
In 2017 the family sold the hotel and 15 rai of the 35-rai Nai Lert Park to Bangkok Dusit Medical Services healthcare group owner Dr Prasert Prasarttong-Osoth, who in turn opened the BDMS Wellness Clinic on the site. A year later, Lek launched the Nai Lert Butler Academy in partnership with the British Butler Institute. “The core of the Nai Lert group is to build people and help them grow, so I was thinking of a project that would tap into the Thai knack for hospitality and complement the tourism sector.” Her latest achievement is a partnership to launch the Aman Nai Lert Bangkok, a project in the works since 2018. “It’s a long-time dream made possible because our visions align,” the executive smiles. The partnership between the two hospitality groups encompasses a hotel and residences offering unrivaled luxury within the grounds of the family’s urban oasis. It is set to open in 2023.
On what’s next, Lek is uncharacteristically unsure. “I used to plan all the time: New Year’s resolutions and what have you, but everything I put to planning never really seems to happen,” she says. “For now I’m just happy living life in love. It’s all about consistency and staying grounded. As my grandmother used to say, ‘As long as your feet are on the ground, you will live a prosperous and long life.’”
See also: The Shared Artistic Attributes Of Chatchai Puipia, Shone Puipia And Pinaree Sanpitak
- Photography Chaiwat Kangsamrith
- Make-Up Ithigorn Luksameejunporn
- Hair Anya Chumpalee
- Styling Prisana Kittichotikul
- Location Nai Lert Park