For a bit of la civilisation francaise in Bangkok, meet the French Ambassador, Monsieur Gilles Garachon. On a steamy morning, the Swedish photographer Thomas Engström and I visited the French Ambassador, Monsieur Gilles Garachon at the French Embassy located on the banks of the Chao Phraya River.
The Embassy is an ultramodern building in front of the residence (if you arrive from the land side). The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched an international architectural competition for the design of the new French Embassy in Bangkok, and ADP-Ingenierie won in September 2011. The aim of this project was to consolidate on one site all of the scattered French diplomatic missions located throughout Bangkok.
This project required total demolition and reconstruction of the old French Embassy building. ADP-I’s team called for a universal solution by erecting a new 6 storey building. A new courtyard was also constructed at the side entrance. This building presents modernity within a preserved sense of heritage of the French presence in Thailand. The new building offers a very contemporary interpretation of local architecture.
The old residence was a gift to France from King Mongkut (Rama IV) in 1857. It’s a beautiful, old colonial villa overviewing the vibrant Chao Phraya River. The residence has lately received a makeover and offers both a resplendent home for the Ambassador and his family, as well as being ideal for elegant diplomatic functions.Did you know that the French community in Thailand is the largest in Asia? About 13,000 French people are registered, but there is at least 3/4 times more who are not registered.
In 2017, over 800,000 French tourists visited Thailand and the number of French tourists is steadily increasing. Thailand and France are working closely on many touristrelated matters, and the Thai police are heavily involved watching out for their security, thus no significant security issues exist at present, the Ambassador informed us. France has an important cultural, scientific and technical cooperation with Thailand through the Embassy’s “Cooperation and Cultural Action Service”. The Franco-Thai Innovation Centre provides high level specialised training in many industry sectors.
“Wine is also one of Gilles’ passions. Mention a “Chateau Neuf du Pape” and my mouth waters.”
The first official relationship between the two countries occurred in 1684, the year when Thailand established an Embassy in France. This relationship ended in 1688 during the Siamese upheaval of the Siamese Ayutthaya Kingdom, which led to the death of King Narai. One of the most prominent battles took place in 1688, with the Siege of Bangkok, where thousands of Siamese forces spent four months besieging a French fortress within the City, and as a consequence of this revolution,
Siam severed all ties to the West. Relations were only restored much later in the 19th century.
In fact, the relationship started again in 1856. The current Ambassador is posted now for the second time in Thailand and he, several times, pointed out how happy he and his family are to be living here. He has a deep love for Thailand, its culture and language. He has been here for 2½ years and enjoys every minute.
His first posting in Thailand occurred in 1999 until 2003 when he was Political Counselor for the French Embassy. The Ambassador and his wife Isabelle have two sons, both born in Thailand. “When we returned to Thailand it was like coming back home,” he says. The two sons have been attending the French School in Bangkok and the eldest has just graduated.
Gilles himself was born in Paris 1955, one of the best wine harvest years ever, as it was a very warm and sunny summer in Europe. He, as with many of today’s Ambassadors, was not planning to become a diplomat. He studied archeology with a focus on SE Asia, mainly Cambodia, at Sorbonne University. He completed his studies in Myanmar, formerly Burma, in 1979. He is a graduate of the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilisations and also holds a PhD in history.
On top of this, he is a “Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur and with the Ordre National de Merite.” He is fluent in Hindi, Burmese, and English. No one else in his family is involved in the “diplomatic world”. His parents are from the Burgundy region, an agricultural and winery area. Wine is also one of Gilles’ passions. Mention “Chateau Neuf du Pape” and my mouth waters. Gilles is not responsible for Myanmar, Cambodia or Laos, as France has small Embassies in those countries. He has more than enough to deal with in Thailand, he let me know with a smile.
After finishing his studies, he decided to sit for the exams to get into the Foreign Affairs. He was happy to be accepted and he finished his studies in 1985. Gilles also points out that his wife is playing an important role in his career. She is busy with SHOM (the spouses to the Ambassadors own organisation). “My wife is very strong in communications,” he says.
Like most Ambassadors, his days are replete with meetings, lunches, dinners and often evening events. The National Day is celebrated July the 14th and an important day on the Ambassador’s calendar. The Embassy has two French Chefs working and serving genuine French food to guests. The Ambassador and his family love food and enjoy spicy Thai dishes.
The boys’ former Thai nanny comes in every Sunday and cooks Thai brunch for the family, which is most appreciated. Her food is “aroy mak, mak,” he says. He would also like to take some cooking courses to learn how to prepare Thai dishes.
I asked if he has some favourite restaurants and he replied, “There are plenty, for example, Bak Thai, which is more of a food stall, it’s absolutely fantastic food especially because it’s Pad Thai.” Talking about food, the Ambassador is a big supporter of local French restaurants and cuisine. There is a special event named “Gout de France”, all about gastronomy organised by the Embassy for the last 4 years.
Many star chefs have been in Thailand presenting their culinary knowledge. Coming up in the near future is a big party at the residence where genuine French food will be served. I also learned that “Le Bouchon” is supposed to be the oldest French restaurant in Bangkok. It’s a bistro style restaurant that has served traditional style food to gourmands for the last 20 years, located in the heart of the historic area of Patpong. There are many good ones, and both the Ambassador and I are very fond of the Bistro “Indigo” at Convent Road near Sala Daeng BTS station. Here you can enjoy a table outside in the cosy uplit garden or sit inside in the air con. The menu is enormous and includes most French specialties.
Talking about food and wine, I also had to ask about keeping in shape….“What about exercising,” I asked and learned that on the balcony of the residence, the Ambassador can ride a stationary bike, watching the busy river. “I try to work out early mornings,” he admits. “It’s a bit cooler and as I’m up quite early, I can do my work out peacefully.” Are you a night owl, I also want to know? He answered that he is probably not, if he can sneak away early from events, he does. Thai people have dinner around 6pm and as they wake up and start working early mornings, they finish in moderate time in the evenings.
(“Suits me,” he says laughing). It is easy to see that Gilles is in a very good physical shape and that the exercise is beneficial. While talking about looking fit, we discussed France’s Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron. He is good for France and Europe, Gilles says and, in despite of his young age, he has a lot of experience, beginning with his many years at the Ministry of Economy. He also is very well educated and has wide private sector experience. I had to point out that, behind every successful man, there is usually a strong woman, and to this the Ambassador totally agreed.
The Embassy is working closely with the Alliance Francaise in Bangkok. There you can study fashion with qualified and experienced professors trained in France. You can take courses in the French language, dance, music, theatre, arts and crafts, and even courses introducing you to philosophy, and various other subjects.
Sport is another topic and among the many sports available, Thai Boxing (Muay Thai) has become very popular also among the French population. This is a sport referred to as the “Art of eight limbs” or the “Science of eight limbs”. We also had to talk about travelling. Favourite destinations, do you have any? “Yes, I really enjoy Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai up in the north. These places are so beautiful and peaceful.”
The Ambassador would happily retire in Thailand, he says. “My family and I feel good here – there is so much to discover.” I have to mention that his Thai is also good, so he won’t have any big issues spending the rest of his time here, as it is easier if you can communicate in the host country’s language.
The morning went too fast and I had many more questions I would have liked to ask, but the Ambassador had to rush off for a meeting (he was already late), nevertheless I had to ask one last question:
“If you could pick someone in the world to dine with, which person would you choose?”
“Oh, this is difficult: but my wish would be a casual dinner with colleagues”.
Gilles told us that the Ambassadors “have a very good rapport with each other and enjoy each other’s company a lot, and that this is something that I have witnessed over the last few years.” We thanked the Ambassador for having taken this time and waved him goodbye when he stepped in to his Peugeot, because of course the car had to be French.
Vive la France!