Giggling, drinks spilling and people stumbling.
It’s not a scene out of a Bangkok nightclub but sounds commonly heard at Dine in the Dark, a restaurant where guests eat in complete darkness, assisted by visually-impaired people who act as guides, doing everything from physically leading diners to their seats to handing them their utensils.
While the idea of dining in the dark isn’t exactly new — the first dark dining restaurant opened in Switzerland in 1999 — the DID restaurants in Asoke’s Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit and in Phnom Penh are enjoying popularity among those looking for a different experience.
The guides are key to the dark dining experience that, for some, can be unnerving. When dining in complete blackness, even the simple act of navigating to the bathroom becomes an arduous task.
“The guides are amazing. They pick up on so much. They know from your voice if you’re happy, stressed or calm,” said Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit Food and Beverage Director Robert Wittebrood.
“And they’re great with the guests. When people get anxious in the dark, the guides play little games with them or ask them questions to distract them until they are having a great time.”
According to Raksak Chairankuansakun, principal at The Bangkok School for the Blind, most visually-impaired Thais can go to specialized schools for free, whether they are run by the government or by foundations, such as The Bangkok School for the Blind, where students can also live free of charge.
Once they graduate, the most common jobs held by the visually-impaired include massage therapists, telephone operators, call center workers and independent lottery ticket sellers.
At DID Bangkok, founder Julien Wallet-Houget notes that the restaurant is also a vehicle for raising awareness about and interacting with the city’s visually-impaired residents.
With a background in NGOs and law, Wallet-Houget became interested in dark dining as a vehicle for doing good as well as making money.
When he noticed how much confidence the guides have gained in their roles, it got him thinking about other business models.
“After a few months, I realized that if they can serve in the dark, they can also serve in the light. They have such professional skills but we can’t see everything they have to offer. Why keep them in the dark?”
Coconuts Bangkok sat down with four of DID’s visually-impaired servers, to find out about their jobs, lives, hopes and experiences. Here’s what they had to say:
Varin ‘Moo’ Traisnakorn, 37
Moo is fluent in English and Thai and can speak conversational French as well. When not working at Dine in the Dark, she works as a professional translator.
“I love to talk with customers and share this experience. It can be challenging for them. When they come into the dark, some of them feel afraid. They don’t want to touch anything or even take a step forward. I like to see them get more and more comfortable as the night goes on,” she said.
Chokchai ‘New’ Kampotong, 30
Wallet-Houget met New at Dialogue in the Dark, an experiential exhibition that allows visitors to experience everyday tasks in the dark with the aid of a visually-impaired person.
The founder was instantly impressed by New’s sharpness and enthusiasm. He was one of the first guides recruited for Bangkok’s DID and has introduced several new guides to the restaurant from his personal network.
New is one of only 55 licensed visually-impaired massage therapists in Thailand. He loves to keep busy. When he’s not guiding guests at DID or giving massages, he sometimes sells lottery tickets on the sidewalks of Bangkok.
Phisit ‘Oak’ Jongsiripatom, 34
“I love talking to people from other countries. I think my English pronunciation has gotten much better in the year and a half I’ve been working here and I’ve learned a lot. I love my job.”
At DID, Oak has met people from all over the world. He often asks them about the lives of visually-impaired people in their countries. “I met a family from Kenya and asked them what blind people do there and they said, ‘Nothing. The government can’t help them and they can’t help themselves.’ I think being there is much worse than being here if you are blind.
“I also do Thai traditional massage to help people. It’s my dream to open a clinic staffed by all blind masseurs. I have been saving for that and it’s coming soon!” he said.
Kannica ‘Kanni’ Wongten, 31
Kanni describes herself as the most playful member of the DID staff. Before they open for business each evening, she plays pranks such as running around the restaurant trying to scare her co-workers. When she’s not there, she is a volunteer teacher at The Bangkok School for the Blind teaching math and science to visually-impaired students.
She dreams of opening a shop that sells goods through Instagram or Facebook in the future. “I would like to have a little business and be the owner of something. Working at Dine in the Dark, I’ve learned how to be a team member. I’ve learned to be a grown up — but I’m still the naughtiest one on the team,” she said.
They all laugh when they talk about raucous games of hide-and-seek that they play when the restaurant is closed.
Sometimes, the guests get in the fun, too. The guides recall guests disappearing from their seats only to be found hiding quietly in another part of the room. They’ve had couples arrive for an important birthday with the celebrator unaware that the dark room is full of their friends. Or guests that sneak up behind their dining partners and grab them in the dark, leading to many upended wine glasses.
“People can get really comfortable in the dark. It can change their behavior, they don’t feel like they have to be so proper,” said Kanni.
Dine in the Dark is located at 250 Sukhumvit Road, on the ground floor of the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit. To find out more, visit http://www.dineinthedarkbangkok.com/.