Flamboyant, luxe-living, and philanthropic—one of Bangkok’s most colourful Indians tells us who the real Sunil Phol is. BY REENA KARIM
Sunil Phol looks like a biker or a member of a heavy metal band. His wavy, shoulder-length hair boasts brown highlights, and both his biceps are covered in tattoos—not your typical candidate for the title of Doctor. “People expect me to be a serious, old man with big spectacles,” he laughs, “but when they see me, those who haven’t met me, they say, ‘Oh, you are Dr Sunil.’”
Appearances aside, Sunil’s social life is even more at odds with the nerdy stereotype. On Saturdays, you can find him at Opus Wine Bar or the new restaurant Desi Beats, and more recently getting his groove on at the Sensation dance music event. Twice a month, he makes it a point to host parties at his Phrakhanong mansion. Having only met Sunil and his wife Pooja once at a Masala event, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I was invited recently to his birthday bash. A few people I talked to in previous days referred to him as the “rock star doctor”, and after meeting him, I could see why.
At his mansion, which is inspired by several locations around the world—namely the casino in Monte Carlo and the Ritz Carlton in Paris—the couple made sure to personally welcome every one of their guests. A few hours into the party, Sunil shed his stylish sports jacket for a pair of shorts and Crocs and mingled away. Themed “Monte Carlo”, the party was anything but understated, with endless pours of Champagne, butlers at hand with hors d’oeuvre, a DJ flown in from India, a pianist, and a full Indian buffet.
Needless to say, his lifestyle and indulgences often make him the centre of kitty gossip. Rock star image aside, Sunil is a very private man, and his life revolves around his work and his family. At his clinic, the lounge is lined with photos of some of the more renowned patients he tends to. Without taking names, let’s say he has his fair share of Bollywood A-listers, beauty queens, and even a few Hollywood stars. Later, when we sit face to face, I note his apprehension, and he admits he isn’t sure of where to begin. So we take it from the top. He takes me through his childhood in Chiang Rai, his college days in Chiang Mai, and how he came to Bangkok some 20 years ago. But the journey wasn’t always a smooth one. “When I came to Bangkok, I didn’t know anyone here, except my sister. I walked out of the family and came here with nothing.” But he started from scratch and worked his way up, heading the dentistry department at Kluaynamthai Hospital. After more than a decade there, he finally opened his private practice in the depths of Sukhumvit 71.
When he first established the clinic, medical tourism was only beginning to take shape in Thailand. Now, he says, “[patients from around the world] come in because it’s four to five times cheaper than their country.” But it’s not just the price factor, he adds. “Our workmanship here is very good.”
Medical tourism has not only boosted Thailand’s economy but also allowed for qualified doctors and state-of-the-art equipment and procedures to take the country’s healthcare industry up a few notches. Sunil specialises in the smile makeover procedure, which involves cosmetic dentistry and even a chin and jaw reduction if needed. Aside from the dental work, patients here can enjoy airport pick-up services and a complimentary stay at his ten-bedroom suite at the Bloom Towers. “The idea is to give the patients total care and rehabilitation.”
Sunil doesn’t deny that dentistry is a lucrative career, but he believes young doctors should not look at the money, but rather cultivate a love for the patients. This is especially true in dentistry, where many cases require hands-on follow-up sessions. The rewards, too, are not just monetary. “When my patients walk out with a smile, I am content that I have done my best. I have seen many patients cry, too. I get emotional, but feel happy from inside.”
His parties and profession aren’t all that define him. Sunil is also deeply involved in philanthropy. Despite being the poster boy of professional success, Sunil’s proudest moment was when he was bestowed with The Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant medal from the king of Thailand for his philanthropic services to the community. “I was very honoured,” he says. “The public wrote a letter to the king [suggesting my name].”
He shares details of an upcoming project funded through the SP Foundation, which he began with his wife. The medical centre and hospital will start construction this year and will provide free medical and dental treatments and English tutorial classes for the residents of the Suan Luang Salamat slum area. Last year, the foundation also donated a van to transport dead bodies from hospitals to homes for those who cannot afford the pricey service. Photos in Sunil’s office show former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva receiving the van.
Even with a reputation and things to show for it, the doctor remains surprisingly modest. “I came from a rich family, and one day I saw everything go away. In the Indian society, when you don’t have money, your life becomes very hard, and I don’t want to see those days again. The pain in the past inspired me to work hard. My wife and I are entirely self-made. But above all, the fear of god keeps me grounded.”
Published in Masala February, 2013