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Talking On Water With Count Gerald Van Der Straten Ponthoz

Make It Count

Most of us live in the here and now. Then, there are those, who are tasked with looking into the future, not in days, months or years, but in generational timelines. It was a hot day and we were already full of sweat beneath our neatly tucked-in shirts and trousers as we walked towards the end of the pier at Ao Po Marina in Phuket to meet a distinguished gentleman, Count Gerald van der Straten Ponthoz. We were taking a break from the ongoing Thailand Yacht Show at the time to meet this Belgian Count who has made Thailand his home for the last couple of years. The fear of his stature had already been planted into my head prior by Young, our Managing Director, who asserted to us that this was no ordinary interview we were conducting but one that will leave a long-lasting impression. With my nerves out of place and the Phuket sunlight roasting me inside and out, I gripped at my very best brain cells as we approached the end of the pier, afraid that the grueling heat would soon melt away whatever cells that were left.

Arriving finally in front of a nicely polished Princess 82 motor yacht, our party was greeted by the friendliest demeanour out on Ao Po Marina that day with a nice and loud, "Hello!". To quite my surprise, it was none other than Count Gerald himself in the most casual of attire; nothing but beach shorts, a baggy t-shirt and his long and big frame moving about spiritedly. He personally greeted and ushered us on board and in no time we were made comfortable after the necessary but light-hearted introductions. Count Gerald van der Straten Ponthoz is, in the simplest of terms, a Belgian Nobleman. After residing in Barcelona, Spain for three years, he wanted to fulfil a long-time desire to move to Mexico where he aspired to setup his dream house amidst the beautiful landscape of the North American country. But, through a series of twists and turns as the Count put it to us, fate would have it that he ended up in Thailand. The house he had his sights set on in Mexico had been sold and subsequently, a close Thai acquaintance of his invited him for a vacation to Thailand. Instead of opting for the bright glitter of touristy areas, Count Gerald then chose instead to visit the more remote and rural areas of the North and South of Thailand to immerse himself in the cultural and traditional aspects of the Thai countryside. It was eventually Chiang Rai's Mae Chan district which he chose to call home ever since. 

Even so, Count Gerald, or Khun Gerry as his local Thai friends call him by, is not your typical elite socialite. He has used his business-savviness to help develop various rural communities in Thailand to foster a self-sufficient mentality amongst themselves. This good-will disposition of the Count took shape after he got acquainted to Wilaiwan Piriyakrit, director of the local Suksasongkroh Mae Chan School, a government-run educational institution for impoverished students from hill-tribe communities. She played an instrumental role in spurring his desire to help the students. "I like the way my life is because there is a quiet, up-country feel to it in Chiang Rai. I still get to drive out on my own with my Lamborghini to meet friends. Whereas, when in Bangkok, it is about socialising with high-level persons, all sophisticated and interesting people. Like here in Phuket, I feel like a tourist here, despite having lived in Thailand for so long already. But when I come here to Phuket, I rarely visit the island."‚Äč

In no time, Count Gerald took heed of the advice to setup a foundation to front his cause together with the Thai educator. Called the 'Chao Phya Abhai Raja Siammanukulkij Foundation', which he named after his ancestor, he has used this foundation to help better structure the hill-tribe projects he was and is running for the local communities here in Thailand. This move allowed the foundation to support destitute hill-tribe children with such things like scholarships to pave their way for better career opportunities in the future. But even as the head of the independently run foundation, Count Gerald was quite humble in taking all the credit. "Most people think I'm like Mother Theresa. They think that I do things for others out of some need to be saint-like. The simple answer is, no. I do not set out to be so. I merely invest in those around me whom I see potential in to make something out of themselves," said Count Gerald to Young, Charles, Syazwan and myself.

Immediately, the four of us went quiet and perched our ears out even more as the Belgian Count went on to school us on his way of seeing the world as a Nobleman. "My aim with each project under the foundation is to give disadvantaged youngsters opportunities which will help them in earning a middle-class income with a job they're passionate about. Nothing in this world comes free and every person has to prove their worth to be a part of these endeavours." The sharp-witted Belgian Count belongs to the very same family that owns and manages the world's biggest beer brewer, AB Inbev. A billionaire with the lifestyle to command any crowd, the man is more grounded than most people. 

"If you are born lucky, like me, it becomes your responsibility to at least share that luck with a few people," said Count Gerald to us. He believes that as a member of such a huge and prominent family such as his, he is responsible for the future generations of his kin, and as such, he has to orchestrate his life while thinking far into the future. "I am responsible for the generations to come, just like the rest of my family members are. In everything we do, in every setting we are part of, all our attention is placed on building a brighter and better future for those who will walk in our shoes one day." While he went on to bedazzle us with his point of view as a billionaire and a community builder, Count Gerald also holds strong opinions on the various aspects of his colourful lifestyle, most especially towards pleasure boating in Asia and more closer to home, in Thailand. The nimble-minded Belgian Count is of the opinion that for Thailand to be more prominent amongst yacht enthusiasts, specifically Phuket, more marinas need to be developed and setup in the right way. 

"The more marinas you have, the more boats that will visit. But this also depends on personal opinion, as the function of a marina in the eyes of some people are not always the same. To me, a marina is a place to be at, to enjoy. It is not a place to park your boat and to get into a car and leave to elsewhere. This is what is lacking in Phuket. So to me, there is a lot more which can be done. It still lacks the charm of a boating destination like Telaga Harbour in Langkawi." Count Gerald believes that the development of more marinas that house a variety of restaurants and entertainment will increase the appeal of Phuket as a yachter's paradise. He then drew comparison to the marinas found along the Mediterranean sea that are all scattered across little villages complete with their own charming restaurants and destinations. But for this to come to pass in Phuket, more parties need to collaborate to bring forth the full potential of Phuket.

"Phuket has enormous potential. The government and business owners need to find a common ground to grow it. Like in the Mediterranean, the big difference is that there are many marinas scattered amidst smaller villages complete with their own charming restaurants and destinations. So when one visits, they view it not just as a place to park their boats but they view it as a destination in themselves." He carried on passionately to point out how the best marinas he has kept frequenting over the course of his life were always filled with life, which he believes, is the crucial missing puzzle to Phuket and Thailand's marinas. "It is of course my personal opinion but, most, if not all marinas in Thailand are rather boring, if not totally dead. After the sun sets, Thai marinas are empty without people and life, and, for some, walking around in early evening is a seriously depressing experience. I guess that some boaters might like it this extremely quiet way but not me."

Another good point highlighted by the well-travelled Count Gerald, is that a great advantage of basing a boat in Thailand is that one can utilise their yacht nearly all year around. "There is of course a rainy season, but it does not rain every day, and if it does, it's not all day long. So, apart from really rainy or stormy days, your boat is always waiting for you when it's in Thailand," explained the Count on why he enjoys yachting still in Phuket. He also added how the island also has necessary facilities to maintain one's boat, along with qualified captains and crews. Contrary to how most high-net worth individuals prefer the exclusive experience at marinas, Count Gerald expresses his lifestyle rather contrastingly from the normal socialite, or at least he believes so. He is also of the opinion that marinas should be more inviting to grow the scene further in Thailand.

"It seems that marina owners in Thailand have all formed this idea that their marina must be "exclusive", a "member's only" establishment with tight security scrutinizing you all the time, where boat owners should feel privileged. All that might work for most people but to me, this approach of making the marinas "exclusive" ends up turning some Phuket marinas into the most boring places you can ever find on the planet," said Count with a slight frustration hiding behind is polished and prim European accent. His opinions are of course the product of enjoying the luxury of putting out his yachts for pleasurable indulgence for decades. The seasoned yacht owner has been into pleasure boating for as long as he can remember.

"I cant remember at what age I first got into boating. However, I do recall one of the earliest memories of me on a boat came in France. It has definitely been in my family for the longest time. My father, uncle and brother all have boats of their own now, so you can definitely call it a family affair," shared Count Gerald on how he first acquired a taste for pleasure boating. More interestingly, he was very candid about how he expresses himself through his luxury yachts and the uses he puts them out for. "I use my yacht to express my lifestyle. I use it in different ways, which is why I love it. Firstly, it is an escape, so when I need to rest and be alone for some time, the boat is perfect for that purpose. Then, there are times when you want to share your boat with your family and friends which brings a different atmosphere. Its multiple uses, seeing as my life is separated into many brackets, is the one thing I really enjoy."

After our lengthy chat inside Count Gerald's quaint Princess 82's cabin, he invited us up to the top deck to soak in Thailand's enchanting island surroundings as he ferried us down south from Ao Po Marina. There on deck, the humble nobleman himself steered us through the bright and green coastal Thai waters, playing tour guide and resident stand-up comedian with his charming and down-to-earth personality. We finally stopped just off the shore of Ao Yon Beach where we docked for some drinks and more insightful conversations with the gracious Count.

Our chatter of yachts, cars, people and life went on deep into the evening until we realised we had over-shot lunch and teatime altogether. With that, Count Gerald came up with the idea of a seaside dinner plan for us all on Ao Yon beach. In no time, we were riding through some ruffled ocean waters on the tender from his Princess yacht.

Through more lighter conversations from our pleasant, seaside dinner under gay Thai breeze, I listened on to his wisdom, yet for the life of me, I couldn't absorb the sight at all; a man of European nobility who had the power to influence the world directly through a mere phone call, was there seated at the table in his beach shorts without flip-flops or shoes. On his face was the brightest smile while sharing a simple meal with us mere simpletons. He didn't have to say any more than he showed us through his humble but real example on true nobility. He carried of course, playing a marvellous host to us until we bade him farewell and made our way back to Ao Po Marina by car from Ao Yon. But I remember clearly that evening how I went to bed after witnessing first-hand from the example of a billionaire that we are humans first and foremost, and that's what counts in the end I guess.