Norwegian wok: Thai community thrives on ice-cold Spitsbergen

Norwegian composure coupled with a dash of Thai hot temper are proving an ideal recipe for multi-ethnic co-existence in Spitsbergen – in stark contrast to the melting pot policies which have turned sour in other parts of the world.

The remote Spitsbergen archipelago located in the Arctic Ocean was for centuries considered unfit for year-round habitation.

One of the most inhospitable places in Europe, with summers colder than some continental winters, it is now home to a fast-growing Thai community.

Norwegians, whose country holds sovereignty over Spitsbergen, are still in the majority, yet the Thais already make up about a third of the archipelago's foreign population.

And it is all thanks to Sompong Haug, the founder of the Thai community, who met her future Norwegian husband in the early 1980s in Bangkok. When he first brought her to Spitsbergen, the couple was a local oddity. But since then, many more have followed in their footsteps.

Many of Sompong’s siblings, cousins, friends and bare acquaintances now live in Norway. She has become the unofficial president of the burgeoning Thai community, with newcomers turning to her for all sorts of advice.

“I think Thais and Norwegians have a lot in common. Both peoples are very open and warm-hearted. But Thai women are thought to be more obedient, more accommodating of a man’s needs. I guess that’s why Norwegian men here like to marry Thai girls,” Sompong Haug says.

While the hatred-spurred massacre by Anders Breivik has reignited a debate over immigration, Norwegians on Spitsbergen say there is absolutely no place for ethnic tensions on the archipelago.

“We are all guests here, many people of all ethnicities. We are responsible for Spitsbergen, for its sovereignty, but everyone who comes here has the right to stay,” local resident Berit Vatvik believes.

According to a 1920 agreement, residents of any country can come and live on Spitsbergen without applying for a visa or work permit. The only condition of residence is to have a job. Norway's generous social support system does not operate there. And, according to the archipelago's vice governor Lars Erik Alfheim, that is one of the reasons behind the multi-ethnic harmony.

“It’s not our intention to discriminate against anyone, but that’s one of the principles. It is required for one to have a house and work in order to provide for himself and family,” Alfheim says.

Most Thais come here for two or three years, hoping to save enough to buy, for example, an apartment in Bangkok.

“The main reason Thai people come to Spitsbergen is to make money. And you can earn a pretty good living here. But what’s more is that we are not treated like immigrants here. We have the same lifestyle as Norwegians – we can travel, we are treated as equals,” Sompong Haug says.

One of the recent arrivals, a young chef, makes around $4,000 a month, mixing traditional Thai recipes with Norwegian staples like seal and deer meat. His Norwegian wok is the best metaphor for the culture of fusion that one can find on Spitsbergen.