One winter day in 1998, longtime Plymouth resident Len Muehleisen decided he needed a vacation from the Minnesota cold, and wanted to get as far away as possible. Muehleisen picked up his globe and put one finger on Minneapolis; the other landed on a random destination: Bangkok, Thailand.
The spin of a globe launched Muehleisen’s long, fascinating journey, one he still is on today. An electrical engineer who has lived in Plymouth since 1973, Muehleisen has made several subsequent visits to Thailand, developed a love for the country and its gentle people, and become even more involved after the island nation was hit by a devastating tsunami on the day after Christmas 2004.
“In early 2005, I read a newspaper interview with a Thai official who said ‘the tourists are still coming, but all they are doing is taking pictures, then leaving. What we really need is help,’” Muehleisen recalls. “I read that and something clicked. I thought maybe I could help in some small way.”
After talking to restaurant-owner friends on the coast of Thailand, Muehliesen booked a two-week trip and spent two weeks collecting donations and buying tools. “We started from ground zero there,” he says. On Batong Beach—a popular tourist area—Muehliesen and his fellow volunteers helped repair damaged fishing boats, cleared the four-mile beach of fallen trees and other debris, and provided funds to help the local fishermen get back on their feet.
From this endeavor he was present for the founding of the now defunct handsonthailand.org, which brought more than 200 volunteers and hundreds of thousands of dollars to assist the rebuilding of five Phuket fishing villages. (The legacy of giving back to those in emergency need continues across the globe: The weekend after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the group brought 1,500 volunteers to Biloxi, Miss., then launched projects during the next few years in Indonesia, Philippines, Peru and Bangladesh.) One unanticipated positive effect of the post-tsunami volunteer effort at Batong Beach was that the publicity attracted several developers to the area who have built hotels there. The city also added tsunami warning signs and sirens to help reduce the toll of any future disasters.
David Campbell, founder and executive director of the now Massachusetts-based nonprofit renamed All Hands Volunteers, remembers Muehleisen as a volunteer “with a smile on his face, happy to work. He became one of the leaders of our chainsaw team,” says Campbell, who met Muehleisen at that first Phuket hotel.
Muehleisen also became more involved with Thai culture in another major way: In 2010, he purchased the First of Thai restaurant, located in Plymouth at highways 169 and 55, and renamed it Thai Table. He wasn’t intimated by his lack of restaurant-management experience. “After I heard the restaurant was for sale, I studied it and decided there was enough upside potential to take a chance,” he says. “I don’t cook but I can manage.”
Beyond serving good food, Muehliesen resolves to give his customers an authentic Thai experience. He refurbished the restaurant’s interior, which “looked Chinese.” He imported ornate carvings, paintings, rattan, tablecloths and other artifacts. He created a color scheme with plenty of rattan (a beige-like hue) and chili-pepper red. Thai music plays in the dining room. The back wall is dominated by a teakwood carving of a large lotus flower, accented on each side by carvings of women in traditional Thai dresses holding lotus blossoms. (The lotus is an important icon in Thai culture, signifying spiritual enlightenment and healing.)
Working seven days a week at Thai Table, Muehleisen has attracted a steadily growing clientèle, including immigrants from Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, China, Japan, Taiwan and India, who enjoy popular dishes such as pad Thai, pad puk and Kabocha squash curry. He says much of the credit for the authentic food should go to his two top chefs who hail from Laos and Thailand.
At Thai Table, Muehleisen feels he has succeeded in recreating the ambience that keeps drawing him back to Thailand, “a calming place with accommodating people and lots of big smiles.”
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