Thailand’s street dogs are providing inspiration for Niall Harbison’s next big endeavour; his “most rewarding” yet. After travelling the world as a chef surrounded by luxury, his career took many exciting turns including setting up and selling on social media companies Simply Zesty and Lovin’ Dublin, before he settled on the paradise island of Koh Samui.
Originally from Cookstown, Co Tyrone, Harbison moved to Dublin in the late 1990s to train as a chef at Cathal Brugha catering college. “I got a job at the Michelin-starred Peacock Alley after completing my training. I worked there during the early Celtic Tiger years, becoming head chef at just 21. It was an amazing time in Dublin, setting me up for my next career move.”
A ski season cheffing in the French Alps was to lead to jobs on yachts along the French Riviera. “I started ‘small’ working on a six-man yacht,” he says. But as Harbison’s experience grew, yachts got bigger, and via “good fortune”, he got a private cheffing job on the mega-yacht of Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. The 126m-long Octopus boasts two helipads, a swimming pool, a basketball court, a cinema, wine bar and a mini marina with a yacht and submarine. The on-board recording studio was used by Mick Jagger and Bono and U2 among others.
“It’s difficult to comprehend the sheer scale of this yacht and the wealth of its owner or some of the guests. You sign non-disclosures. But because I spent most of my time down below, I didn’t see who was on board or what they were doing. As yachts are moored away from prying eyes, anything goes and people can let go.”
Harbison says that when the yacht docked in Cannes for the annual film festival, his shopping list could reach €150,000. “I made Irish breakfasts for Bono after he found out there was an Irish chef on board. There’s no menu, people just order what they want, so you need a comprehensive supply of pretty much everything. I only saw daylight in Cannes when I popped out to get croissants in the mornings.
“It can be tough working when everyone else is having a good time, but us crew members used to go out after the Monaco Grand Prix was over on a Sunday night, after everyone was gone and had a great time.”
While at sea, travelling from Alaska to Tahiti and anywhere in between, cooking for a crew of 40 until the yacht owner would return, Harbison pondered his next move.
“Social media was at its cusp at the time and I thought it would be a good idea to get involved. So I returned to Dublin to start an online PR and social media agency with Lauren Fisher in May 2009. After growing the company, Simply Zesty, to over 30 employees and offices in London and Dublin we sold the company to UTV in 2013.”
In 2013, he launched Lovin’ Dublin media and marketing company. “I sold the business in 2018 before deciding to do something else altogether. So I decided to move to Thailand to take it easy for a while and remote work on various ventures here.”
Koh Samui is a popular tourist spot, but it’s stunning and there are quiet areas, he says. When Covid-19 hit in 2020, the island’s economy was decimated.
“People here didn’t get government support and many returned to their villages on the mainland. There were hardly any tourists on the island.” While Europeans were still visiting resorts in their own countries, strict quarantine and lockdown restrictions and low income locals left the island eerily empty. “Normally there are over 40 million tourists annually in Thailand, but there were less than 300,000 last year. But it’s still the same beautiful country it was before.”
During Covid-19, Harbison started feeding local street dogs, of which there are eight million in Thailand. “Luckily we don’t have rabies here on the island. I started with one street dog and grew organically. Now I look after 80 dogs in my direct vicinity.
“I spend mornings and evenings feeding them and then there are visits to the vet in between. In Thailand, as people who have visited may know, there is a huge street dog problem, and in many cases the dogs are abused or malnourished. Sometimes they are injured in car crashes or dumped as puppies. I follow the same routine mornings and evenings.”
Harbison is planning to set up a foundation and is looking for suitable land for a sanctuary for sick dogs. “It’s a massive commitment, but it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I’m currently sponsoring most of the endeavour myself, but am also getting funding via online donations. When I set up the foundation, I will pay staff to help me. Currently I have volunteers helping me.” Costs can exceed €5,000 per month, as vet visits are expensive, but Harbison says it’s worth it.
“Obviously it’s difficult to get away now. If I’m away for one rotation, the dogs will miss me, so I’m here all the time,” he says.
“Luckily I’m very happy here. I pay around €400 a month for an apartment with a shared pool. If you were to pay €2,000 here, you would get a five-bed villa, which is obviously not compatible to home. It’s so safe here too. You can leave doors unlocked, despite what some western opinion on Thailand is.”
Harbison says the food and weather are “absolutely perfect”. “A meal costs around €2. You can live in utter luxury here, and eat out every day for a fraction of what it costs at home. I’m excited that tourists are slowly coming back, though it’s been nice to have the place to ourselves.”
Once his schedule allows, he looks forward to coming home. “In the meantime, there’s a few Irish people here you can have a bit of a laugh with. After all, we are the best laugh.”