Published internationally in July 2003 as Kabul: The Bradt Mini Guide.
First published in Kabul in September 2002 as a pamphlet.
May 10 2003
The Spoils of War in Kabul Now Include Thai Restaurant
Wall Street Journal front page
Also published in Naples Daily News.
Lalita Thongngamkam Goes Where U.N. Does,
Looking to Make Money From World's Crises
By ANDREW HIGGINS
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
KABUL, Afghanistan -- One recent afternoon, shortly after a bomb blew a 10-foot-wide crater in one of this ruined city's main roads, Lalita
Thongngamkam went out hunting for vital supplies: jumbo prawns flown in from Dubai and bottles of cabernet sauvignon from Australia.
Passing a bombed-out factory, a huddle of beggar children and the rusting carcass of a Soviet armored vehicle, the Bangkok-born businesswoman looked on the bright side of desperate poverty, decades of war and the decay left by Osama bin Laden's toppled Taliban hosts.
"In a country like this, there is not much competition," said Ms.
Thongngamkam, purveyor of quality cuisine and souvenir T-shirts to nation builders in broken states around the world. "When a country gets in trouble, I'm always interested."
Over the past decade, she has followed a caravan of United Nations officials, relief workers and reconstruction contractors, journeying to
Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda, East Timor, Kosovo and now Afghanistan to cash in on pockets of prosperity created by catastrophe.
Last month, she opened a Thai restaurant called Lai Thai in Wazir Akbar
Khan, an enclave of walled villas once favored by al Qaeda militants. It depends for business on a fragile boom in a city patrolled by foreign troops and kept afloat by foreign funds.
Always on the lookout for a promising new calamity, Ms. Thongngamkam follows the news closely, visiting a newly opened Kabul Internet salon to check up on events in Iraq and in other potential zones of turmoil. Electricity frequently falters, but a generator keeps the computers running.
Iraq might be her next stop, but only if the U.S. military grants a role to the U.N. in the running and reconstruction of the country: "I always follow the U.N.," she says. Her logic: U.N. officials earn more than soldiers do and eat out more often.
Mostly confined to their bases, America's 9,000 troops in Afghanistan make occasional purchases of black-market Uzbek vodka but have otherwise disappointed a nascent food-and-beverage industry. U.S. diplomats venture out a bit more. They need special permission from embassy security staff to dine out after dark but do sometimes leave a heavily fortified embassy compound for lunch.
Ms. Thongngamkam, a 52-year-old divorcee, first visited Kabul last fall,
traveling here from Kosovo, where she had opened a restaurant after the U.N. took charge of administration in 1999. Increasing stability in Kosovo had begun to cut into her principal competitive advantage -- the absence of competition. "Everything became fairly settled, so I started to look for a new place," she says.
Kabul "looked like a good place for me." It had a plethora of U.N. agencies, a wrecked economy, enough violence -- sporadic rocket attacks and bombings -- to keep most rivals away but just enough security to allow the lifting of an after-dark curfew. Curfews are death to the restaurant trade.
Impressed, Ms. Thongngamkam decided to relocate to Afghanistan, along with her staff of cooks and waitresses based in Kosovo. She rented a house and turned the living room into a restaurant serving spring rolls, king prawn soup, ginger chicken with coconut milk and other traditional Thai fare.
Business has been brisk, despite fears that Islamist fighters are regrouping in the south of the country and an order, now lifted, to U.N. staff to stay indoors.
"Everyone still has to eat," says Ms. Thongngamkam, who declines to say how much she earns. One evening, customers included six U.N. employees, French aid workers, German officers from an international military force that patrols Kabul, and a group of burly Americans who arrived armed with pistols in a four-wheel-drive vehicle without a license plate. They refused to say who they were.
Aside from opium production, which has soared since the Taliban regime collapsed under American bombs in late 2001, serving foreigners is "the only real economy," says Dominic Medley, the British author of Kabul's first tourist guidebook since 1972. (A government minister earns $40 a month; a driver for a foreign outfit can earn 10 times that.)
Tourism is unlikely to take off anytime soon: The Afghan tourism minister was murdered last year and the State Department "strongly warns U.S. citizens against travel to Afghanistan." But, says Mr. Medley, who runs a training course for U.S.-funded Radio Free Afghanistan, foreign aid, which is to total about $1.8 billion this year, will keep Kabul from falling off the map.
The U.N. has more than 700 international staffers in Afghanistan.
Nongovernmental organizations, only a handful of which operated under the Taliban, now number more than 1,000. Their purchasing power stirs some resentment. "Restaurants are not reconstruction," scoffs Burhanuddin Rabbani, an Islamic cleric and former president.
Popular nightspots now include an Afghan-Italian pizza and kebab joint, an Iranian restaurant and a couple of Chinese places. For a few weeks, Kabul even had an Irish bar -- just a few doors down from a mosque. For security reasons, the U.N. prohibited its people from drinking there. Late last month, the bar closed down after warnings that it might be targeted by terrorists.
The Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan, as the country is officially called, bans alcohol but often turns a blind eye to discreet drinking in private by foreigners.
Kabul, says Ms. Thongngamkam, is still a tricky place to run a business.
It's a lot more difficult than Kosovo or East Timor, she says, but easier than Rwanda, where she tried, briefly, to sell souvenirs to aid workers after the 1994 genocide, or Somalia, where she gave up scouting for business because the only relatively safe forms of transportation were helicopters and armored cars.
Being female, she says, helps: Even armed men in Afghanistan feel uneasy with a feisty, unveiled foreign woman. Ms. Thongngamkam's first venture was a food trading company in Bangkok, where her then-husband served in the Thai armed forces. But Thailand, though plagued in the past by military coups, was too tame -- and far too competitive. With her three children at school in Australia, she shifted to crisis catering abroad.
Her biggest headache now is bureaucracy: The Afghan government, which has scant authority beyond the outskirts of Kabul, still runs 32 ministries, each generating its own red tape. To help negotiate the maze, she has recruited a well-connected young Afghan as a partner.
Nonetheless, she is already expanding, converting two upstairs bedrooms of the house she rents into additional dining areas. Reservations are recommended, though calling to reserve a table sometimes isn't easy. The restaurant's land line doesn't work and Kabul's mobile network, set up under a license first issued by the Taliban, frequently fails, especially when it rains. A sideline in mementos is also doing well: Ms. Thongngamkam just ordered a new batch of T-shirts from Thailand featuring a map of Afghanistan decorated with tanks, rocket launchers and other weaponry.
To stock up on supplies, Ms. Thongngamkam shops at Kabul's first and only supermarket, run by a Swiss company that flies in food and drink twice a week from the United Arab Emirates. Located on the edge of a British military camp near the airport, it serves foreigners only. Shopping there recently, Ms. Thongngamkam wandered the aisles cursing the high prices, before loading up on beer, whiskey, wine and frozen corn. She was too late for prawns, which were sold out.
On the drive back into town, she got a call on her cellphone: Her Afghan partner had run into trouble finalizing paperwork for a new venture – a guest house with a fitness center offering massages. Officials, who earlier this year banned cable television as un-Islamic, didn't like the idea of massage.
Another call brought happier news: a booking for a party of 16. For all its troubles, she says, Afghanistan is still a "very sweet cake" for risk-takers. A few years ago, she opened a restaurant in Australia. It flopped. "In stable places, there are too many competitors," she says.
The Survival Guide to Kabul©