6 June 2024

George Orwell, the author of the dystopian “1984”, is known to have frequented London pubs, and half of the gin mills in the city are said to have had him as a customer at one point or another. Orwell was dissatisfied with most of the pubs in his city. He wrote an essay for the Evening Standard in 1946, which he called “The Moon Under Water”, in which he described the rules that his ideal drinking establishment would follow. A Russian chef, Alesha Voronin, chose to name his restaurant in the heart of Bangkok after it.

Alesha came to Thailand on holiday, thinking he would only stay for a month. While he was staying with his girlfriend for a night in a school near Songkhla, because the hotel in the town was completely booked due to funerals, a man high on “ya ba” (a potent mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine) broke in and hit him on the head with a stick, with the intent to assault his girlfriend. This left him with 23 scars on his head and he was taken to hospital, where he stayed for a few weeks.

Seeing how hospitable and kind the villagers were with him, what local life was like, his tourist mind set changed and he wanted to know more about the country and its customs. “People were very kind to me, I mean the whole village, every day, people would come with flowers and fruits from all over this town, just for support. The hospital, it’s so beautiful, it’s just like a Zen garden, the pond, the gazebo at the centre of the pond. At 7am, pink lotuses opened and, at 7.30, white lotuses opened and everything was so nice.”

He has now been living in Thailand for 15 years and recently went from being a film producer to being a chef. Even though he started cooking at three years old, subscribing to gourmet magazines at five to get ideas for recipes, he had never thought about becoming a chef before. In Soviet times, being a chef wasn’t highly regarded. “When I was in school, they would bully me, if you study badly, you’re going to go and make dumplings all your life,” he says.

The Bangkok-based chef did not want a cliché name for his restaurant, like Moscow or Rasputin, but one that would transcend national stereotypes and be meaningful to all. The name of his restaurant can be interpreted in many ways, not only as a tribute to George Orwell. The mind, in Zen Buddhism, is said to be like “the moon reflected in the water”. The symbolism of it speaks to our inner-most self.

The restaurant, which Alesha prefers to call a “living room”, strives to respect the rules that Orwell set out in his essay. It is decorated carefully, so as to give a 19th century feeling to anyone entering. Paintings of Russian czars are hung on dark green walls, whose colour is reminiscent of old Russian dachas. Orwell wanted his pub’s architecture and fittings to be “uncompromisingly Victorian” and, if the actual Moon Under Water isn’t exactly Victorian, similar feelings are evoked when one enters.

The Moon Under Water should not be noisy either, it needs to be “quiet enough to talk”, possessing neither a radio nor a piano. Every so often, some traditional Russian folk songs will be played, as well as rock music from the 80s and 90s (Kino, DDT…), but one could argue that these don’t hinder communication, they are like waves crashing against the shore, often very melancholic.

Other rules include the need to make sure that the right cutlery and crockery is used when serving food, “motherly” barmaids and an atmosphere suitable for families.

By Aymen Belkadi, Thai PBS World