Maria Kalita could be your pet’s vet, doctor, or treat your back with physiotherapy, or even cure your illness with traditional Tibetan medicine, but a few years ago the ‘alchemist’ in her soul got hooked with a new passion – of natural soap and beauty care making. Through her shop “Bangkok Soap Opera” and her shining personality – she promotes green ideology and healthy sustainable lifestyle. And she definitely loves life! Upon entering Maria’s shop, the good appetising aroma hits you, with cinnamon, vanilla and fruits notes – it smells better than patisserie. It looks a bit like a kitchen rather than ‘cosmetics’ shop. Maria, 30, Ukrainian, moved to Thailand 5 years ago following her husband’s work at Muay Thai World Federation. Her love for new places and adventures allowed her to fully take advantage of this opportunity. Prior to Thailand Maria and her husband, whom she has known since she was 16, had a meaningful chapter in Poland, where her professional journey took off.
You had busy life in Poland, tell me about it.
Maria: Poland was for us a spot to escape from our hometown in Ukraine and a breath of fresh European air. With all its beautiful stability, care for citizens and possibilities to grow. I came to Poland with an academic degree from Ukraine in Veterinarian medicine and certification in Tibetan therapy. I wanted to shift my focus more towards treating people rather than animals. So we moved to Krakow Poland to study in the university, and I started my 2nd degree in physiotherapy. We lived in an old building in the centre of Oldtown with a ceramic stove to heat up the apartment during the winter. We had a black cat and old Dutch bicycles to explore the city. We studied in the mornings and after our lectures we would work. Very soon we became the best students in our faculties, were engaged in many activities in university, and got spotted for local magazines and television. Hearing we are only in our early 20s and already married, people in Poland would ask if we had a proper wedding. We surely had, but not in a church as in our society it’s not obligatory. “Oh, then your marriage doesn’t count”, was usually the reaction. Since we felt it counted, after a while we stopped highlighting we were married and presented ourselves as a couple of two hard working students, always together.
Conventional medical studies and holistic medicine – how did you make it work
Maria: In Poland, I was focusing on my physiotherapy studies in the days, and was working as a certified Tibetan therapist after university hours – working with patients using old-fashioned technics of diagnosis: pulse and urine, and teaching courses on Tibetan medicine in Poland, Czech Republic, Russia and Germany. During my first year in Poland I was invited to join the international academy of Tibetan medicine led by a famous Tibetan teacher Dr Nida Chenagsang. (I had read his books when I was just 16 and that influenced me to go to Paris and take a course to become a certified instructor on Tibetan Massage Kunye). My aim during those years was to get official diploma in physiotherapy and to complete a diploma in Tibetan Massage. It sounded impossible in every classic system of medical studies i.e European Union. But I succeed earning both diplomas.
When did you start developing your interest in soap making, how has it evolved to the shop you have today?
Maria: It all started with the moment I held in my hands handmade soap with oats and calendula, that was gifted to me by my chemistry teacher, who later on insisted I join a course on Natural Beauty Care at the faculty of Cosmetology. I somehow follow teachers that inspire me. I learned how to make my first ever soap which was not a successful batch. But it got me engaged and curious. Very soon I prepared my first tools and made my first soap with turmeric, which took me 4 hours to cook. I was always a bit of alchemist. Loving the magic of turning steel to gold. Soap making is just that. Mixture of cooking/chemistry and magic. Soap making became my hobby and I started investing in it every free moment I had. Within 4 months I was offered to host my first soap making workshop in a far away little village near the mountains. We made soap using herbs from the garden, while reindeers were picking apples just in front of our house. I believe it was the real start of the future Bangkok Soap Opera. I understood if I wanted to share my knowledge on natural soap making 1 I needed to infuse beauty care formulas with my knowledge on holistic old-fashion medicine. 2 Use simple edible ingredients which are easy to get. 3 Treat people as grownups and show them all the secrets from A to Z, showing that everyone can make soaps for their families at home. Moving to Bangkok I planned to start soap and beauty care production on an everyday basis. I never planned it to be a business project, though. We started as an online store and once a month I would hold workshops on natural soap making.
Then we started hosting classes more often and going offline as a pop up store at Bangkok Farmers Market, Gateway Ekkamai. When I just joined the market we heard about a bakery that started as well with Farmers Market and then opened a store in the heart of Bangkok. It all sounded impossible and miracles. But I kept this story in mind. 3 years later here we are. We have our own store not far from BTS Phrakanong. We have no time to join the markets anymore as our store and workshops are so busy. We now teach more than 20 topics of beauty natural care, soap making and perfumery. We have students coming to us from all around the world. We travel around Asia teaching classes and we enjoy having amazing people visiting us at our store. Bangkok Soap Opera was never my business project. It’s my soul. For me it is a simple way to share my knowledge on holistic medicine in everyday life with my community and motivate them to start a healthy sustainable lifestyle.
In what way your brand is different
Maria: Our aim is to reduce the amount of chemicals used by our society when buying beauty care, as it impacts our health and the environment. To lead a real change we do it by 2 actions: we produce good quality natural beauty care and we teach the community to make their own cosmetics at home, based on long experience and knowledge. We focus on beauty care that will be practical and of high grade, avoiding any chemicals, using edible local ingredients that we can find at home. That helps us control quality of products form A to Z. We do not seem to be green, we are green.
I heard you are an environmental activist. What projects are you involved with these days
Maria: As a kid I always dreamt of working with marine animals. In Thailand I managed to make it happen, and became engaged with wildlife organisation, leading eco-friendly tours to whale watching in the golf of Thailand. With Bangkok Soap Opera we started a community project: we hold educational sessions for business owners and individuals on a green way to recycle their waste oil, instead of pouring it to the city drains, (it affects floods during rainy season and lower drastically quality of city water). As oil is main ingredient in soap making, we turn waste oil into soap. We work as a full cycle business model with restaurants and hotels – they donate oil to us and we make soap for their facility. We also collect oil from individuals and turn it into solid soap and donate it to charity.
What type of childhood did you have?
Maria: When I was 7 my family moved to Cyprus and I spent 2 happy years there, enjoying more possibilities, different than Ukraine (where there were only 2 types of sweaters for winter sold in the stores – green for boys and white for girls). I came back to Ukraine with good spoken English, that helps me today. I was always in love with animals, plants and music. Since I was 5 I played various instruments, and I loved singing. My mom introduced me to the guitar, saying all the big stars play guitar and sing. I started my own band at the age of 14: me playing a big heavy bass guitar, with two 16 year old boys. My mom was right – I became a star and was at one with my guitar. It was my heart. I was always shy and a bit lonely, but my friends thought I was confident and active. When something happened in a kids group or in class, my friends would say ‘oh Maria, go, you can do it. No one will, but you can’. I actually never felt myself good enough for the job but was always surprised to discover how strong I am indeed. As a teenager I was romantic and delicate. writing poems, songs and rollerblading non stop, jumping from stairs making turns in the air. Always loved speed and freedom. When I was still a teenager, I met my future husband. I was 16, he was 19. He looked so grownup to me and wonderful. He waited for me while I took my university exams and years later I waited for him for 9 months while he worked for an airline travelling the world. I am really lucky to be married to my best ever friend.
What do you like to do when you take time off and how do you pamper yourself?
Maria: Almost 100% of my time is focused on Bangkok Soap Opera. To pamper myself I keep it simple: 15 minutes morning yoga routine; 30 minutes cooking healthy food for the day; I always have fresh flowers at my working table; I watch the night sky while sitting in hammock at my roof garden; and I like giving myself gifts – such as jewellery – when I do a great job or finish a project. My pets are also a great way to pamper myself – I have a lovely small dog called Kiwi who travelled the world with me, we have Maria the cat (her name was the main attraction for us to adopt her), and we have rabbits and a hedgehog in the garden.
Who are you? Who is Maria that not everyone knows?
Maria: I believe even now everyone thinks of me as an extremely active person that enjoys being in front of audience. But in reality I suffer every single time when I need to do that. I feel like I am going to the cage with tigers. I want to hide under the bed. On the other hand, if I see someone else in front of an audience – I really envy and want to be there. I am considered gentle when dealing with people, so people get confused when they later see how quickly I make decisions, and how quickly I bring my plans to life.
What drives you?
Maria: Will to life. I never take my life for granted. Every day I feel thankful for what I have.
What or who inspires you?
Maria: Scents and textures of nature inspires me at my work and give me joy, whether it’s a beautiful blossom or delicate dry leaves falling from a mango tree. My grandmother was – and is – my best inspiration. She taught me the secret of life: to enjoy the small things, to enjoy every day. And then wow – you are actually enjoying all your life.
Where do you see yourself in ten years from now?
Maria: In 10 years I wish to be still happily married with my husband. Definitely living in Bangkok. Still wild with silver short hair. 5 kids, 2 big dogs, minimum 3 cats and I badly need a white horse. I plan to have Bangkok Soap Opera stores opened in Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and maybe New York? Why not? Dream big and work hard.
Your top tip to inspire other expats women in a foreign city?
Maria: In any situation or country you move to, never lose yourself. People change, cities change, but you need something to hold on to. It seems the only really stable thing in life we can predict and control is ourselves. So take care of yourself in good and bad times and be brave. Every change is a good change. Everything you lose is a new thing to find soon.