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Good Life Gurus: Maria Poonlertlarp, pageant queen turned environmentalist

Bangkok is a city brimming with talented personalities and charming characters who have pushed their way through to really make their mark. There’s no doubt that they’re truly living their best life, and doing it in great style. In our Good Life Gurus series, we explore and ask the city’s millennial tastemakers and cultural arbiters to reveal what the good life means to them, and give us a little insight into how they live it.

It isn’t often that the worlds of beauty pageants and environmentalists collide, but if there’s one person that seamlessly brought the two together (and made it look beautifully organic), it is her: Maria Poonlertlarp.

Many know the Thai-Swedish beauty pageant titleholder as a model and singer, famously winning the Miss Universe Thailand 2017 competition, and finishing as a top finalist at the international ceremony. Her claim to fame got her plenty of local and international attention, yet Maria has always been adamant on channeling this spotlight in the direction of a cause closer to her heart: the environment.

The self-proclaimed “earth child” has launched various eco-friendly initiatives, using her platform as a voice of reason, information, and inspiration. With both SOS Earth Thailand and Yora Thailand, she continues to be a major player in the narrative around sustainability in Thailand, and continues to put forward this message in a way that is creative and approachable.

Here, we chat to the Maria Poonlertlarp about all things environment, growth, and personal motivation. Read on to find out about her journey from pageant queen to activist, and why you should always give a smile to the person selling you fruit on the street.

Please give us a little background about yourself and what you do. 

I was placed on the radar from the Miss Universe Thailand competition in 2017, when I won the title here and went to compete in the United States where I was placed in the top 5 for the final round.

This was something I didn’t see myself joining, I didn’t even consider it. I have a background in international business and marketing, and after working in a company for only 6 months, during my internship, I realised that the corporate route wasn’t exactly the path for me. I wanted to do other things, and since I had moved back to help take care of my family, I realised a lot of things in society still needed solutions, and I wanted to be a part of that. I thought that going to this pageant was a great way for me to end my modelling career with a bang (I started at 13), and I wanted to do something with more social impact.

What is the story behind SOS Earth and Yora? How did it all begin?

After I won my title, I started an environmental conservational organisation with one of my friends. This is where SOS Earth was born. We realised there was huge issue here in Thailand with trash; we’re one of the top contributors to plastics in the ocean. We were hoping to change that behaviour here, and with that seed in mind, we realised it’s not really about changing behaviour but it’s about getting people to care about the environment. That’s really our whole objective at SOS Earth.

On a similar note, my same friend who started SOS Earth with me got me really interested in dog food. We both are dog parents and we realised how much meat actually goes into the production of animal food and also how it actually affects our pets’ health. My friend really took the reigns for this one, but he showed me this project from the UK that he loved giving to his dog, and it’s made from insect protein. We realised how this is such an interesting aspect that we could also have an impact on: shifting our animal consumption of meat. As we all know, the production of meat is a huge cause of deforestation, water pollution, and major health impacts to both humans and animals themselves. We really saw this insect-based protein as a great solution for our pets at home, so we decided to import Yora into Thailand. It’s something that we just started and are very excited about.

 

Who are the people you work with? What are they like and what do you hope to achieve?

I work with a lot of animal and environmental activists, as well as people in environmental conservation. I work with people in the entrainment industry as well, for my entertainment work. These have overlapped as well. When I started SOS Earth, I had a lot of my industry friends help promote different things, we collab on events and campaigns. In Thailand its really helps to have actors or artists to help promote a cause. A lot of times these people have a louder voice here. We need as much help as we can get.

What are they like? What’s amazing is the passion. Especially when you’re working in this field, the feeling you get really goes up and down. It’s slow to see the feedback. For example, you plant trees, and until you see the growth of the tree, it takes time. Another example is the clean air act. You get the names, you get the petition, but before any laws get passed, it takes time. How can you truly know what you did affects the air you’re breathing right now? Everything you do takes time, and the fact that all these people consistently push through and really believe there’s a solution, that really drives and motivates me as well. The longer I’m doing this the more people I’ve met that are ready to dedicate their lives to finding solutions for all of us.

 

What role do you think being kind to the environment plays in living a ‘good life’?

To debunk what a good life means may differ for a lot of people but in general we can agree on that we want to be happy, be free, and we want to be loved.

In order to be happy, health is an important factor. If our environment isn’t good and balanced, we can get dirty water from pollution, from overgrowth of plants in the canal (no sunlight at bottom), and it becomes dirtier. Nature can’t be the filter that it is for us and this affects our health directly. If the environment around us isn’t good then we simply also can’t be good. It’s logical and something I’ve experienced myself with my own health.

Being free is the same thing. I think it’s very similar to health. It’s hard to be completely free if something is holding you back. Something we experience here in Thailand, especially in the North during the end/beginning of the year, there’s very bad air pollution, and the kids can’t play outside. They can’t experience the outdoors. They need to be inside with the doors closed and with their air filters on. This is also something that affects and inhibits our ability to be free; to live how we should.

There’s a really cool study that shows how nature plays an important role in our health and our ability to be kind to others. There were two groups: one group was looking up at a tall tree, just being amazed. They all had this feeling of awe. They were completely awed. Another group looked up at a tall building that was the same size and height of this tree, however they did not experience this sense of awe. The group that witnessed this tree went on with their day helping others, whereas the other group found it much harder for them to be able to help others. It’s just an example, which could possibly lead to the third cat, which is being loved. Being kind to the environment is really in turn being kind to yourself and to others.

 

What does the good life mean to you? How do you live the good life? 

I touched on what the good life means to me already, but how I live the good life is about being able to align my values with my actions.

For me, right now I’m learning more about animal welfare and how animals play a huge role in our food system, and I’m slowly cutting off animal protein from my diet. One example is from watching this documentary called Dominion. After watching how pigs are treated, I cannot go on living my life by eating pork and supporting that treatment to the animals. By living my life more aligned to my values — the values I already had but learned more about — I realise that there was something that wasn’t in line with that value, that enabled me to change. That’s a big part of living a good life, not just feeling good about it yourself, but knowing that it has a positive effect to those around you.

 

What are your 5 good life essentials? 
  1. Saying yes and being open
  2. Trying new things
  3. Aligning your values with your actions
  4. Practicing gratefulness
  5. Love (I know this sounds corny, but loving what you do, your family, and your friends)
What is your self-care ritual?

I really believe that you are what you eat. Eating things that are healthy (yes it still involves candy and snacks, unfortunately, but balancing that out with healthy food). I focus a lot on vegetables and fruits. Being plant-based has really changed a lot in my life, both physically and mentally.

Finding a channel where you can be creative is also important. That’s something I really stopped for the past 4 years, and I realised it had an effect on my mental space and capability. We need to be creative as humans, and it can be in any form. For a self-care ritual, you need to find that thing where you can channel your excess energy, or your thoughts, or your frustration into. For me I like to sing, or draw.

 

What do you do to be more sustainable or eco-friendly (in work and privately)?

The biggest thing is my diet. I’m really, really trying not to consume meat products at all. I still eat animal products 5% of my diet, maybe eggs or milk sometimes. This has a huge effect on the environment. This is something we need to push top-down but we can also impact bottom-up. Apart from that, of course, I really think about living consciously.

What do you do to keep fit?

I recently started yoga. It’s something you can do yourself, and you don’t need any equipment at all, and it’s really helped me mentally. It’s been great for my meditation. I’ve really seen its effects both mentally and physically, so I really love it. I call myself a new yogi and I totally understand now when all the yogis of the world try and advocate for yoga. I really see its benefits.

 

Where do you go for… the best breakfast in Bangkok:

Brunch-wise, there are so many places. One of my favourites is Simple Natural Kitchen.

Where do you go for… the best date night in Bangkok:

Anywhere near the river. You can find any romantic spot. It’s more about who you’re with [laughs].

Where do you go for…the best drinks in Bangkok:

I’m not so sure because I haven’t had alcohol in a long time. It really depends on the occasion. Either somewhere by the river or somewhere private, like a friend’s house. Or somewhere with some live music.

Where do you go for… the best place to shop in Bangkok:

There are many secondhand stores in Chatuchak which I love. Apart from that, I would love to recommend Refill Station. It’s for anyone who wants to refill anything, really, from sunscreen to shampoo to toothpaste. For food, I’d say any local market that you’re near. Get some fresh fruits and vegetables there.

 

Where do you go for… the best escape from Bangkok:

I like to go to the mountains 50% and the beach 50%. A great place people can find special deals for staycations or holiday spots is on Social Giver. I’ve worked with them many times and you can get special deals, but also a percentage of the proceeds go towards a special cause. They have environmental causes, and causes for SOS are on there as well.

A word of advice for living the good life in Bangkok: 

In Thailand, everyone can really be family — from the person who’s selling fruit on the street to the person giving you financial advice at the bank. Just be friendly, be kind to the people that you’re talking to. Always give a hand to whoever you can, and at the end of the day, if we act like family to one another, it’s a really beautiful city to live in.

Lisa Gries
Creative Content Director, Bangkok
Lisa loves to travel, and is always on the lookout for the world’s best nap spots. She’s a serious Asian art history nerd, and has a knack for languages and coffee table books. She hopes to publish her own novels one day, one of which will likely be called ‘All The Great Conversations I Had In A Bangkok Speakeasy.’ It’s a work in progress.
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