Great and Good Friends

by Agneta de Bekassy
Friends

200 years strong Thai and US friendship.

On Thursday the 8th February Daniel Herron and I went to the American Ambassador’s beautiful residence on Wireless Road to attend a major press event. This is an important and special year for Thai and U.S. relations. It marks 200 years of friendship between the two countries.

H.E. Ambassador Glyn Davies welcomed a large group of Thai and foreign media to talk about the soon to open exhibition “Great and Good Friends” historic gifts between the Kingdom of Thailand and the United States of America, 1818-2018.

This exhibition will be presented at the “Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles” on the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, opening on March 21st through to June 30th. At the exhibition, the official gifts exchanged between the two nations will be on display. Ambassador Davies pointed out the deep ties between the people of the U.S. and Thailand.

It was easy to see this was a passionate topic for the Ambassador and he encouraged us to visit the The Queen Sirikit Textile Museum. Our two countries have been close friends for a long time, he said, and these exchanged gifts helped to manifest that friendship.

At the exhibition you can admire royal gifts from the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit, King Chulalongkorn and King Mongkut amongst others and of course, from respective American Presidents. All the gifts tell a story of two different worlds, uniting on a basis of friendship and understanding.

Unity

The story began when an American sea captain entered the port of Bangkok, two centuries ago and initiated a historic friendship. The U.S. was at that time, a young republic with little knowledge about what was going on beyond the Atlantic Ocean and with little political experience. The American captain returned to the U.S. with a letter he was asked to present the document to President James Monroe from Khun Dit Bunnag, the Thai Foreign Minister, conveying the wishes of His Majesty King Rama II to establish trade between the U.S. and the Kingdom of Siam. The letter was dated August 15, 1818, the first step to the alliance, one that remains strong today.

Basketry Set

The two hundred year period that we celebrate with this exhibition closes with the last day of the glorious seventy year reign of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The King and Queen helped the U.S.-Thai relationship to thrive. An exhibition of this format couldn’t take place without sponsorships. Several companies have contributed to this unique exhibition, some of the goods never have been displayed in public before. The presenters were Amata, B. Grimm Power, Chevron,
Amway, CP, Siam Piwat, Icon Siam, Thai Bev, SCG and Dow.

Co presenters are BJC, RMA Group and sponsors Amcham, Conrad, Jim Thompson, John F. Kennedy Foundation of Thailand for Thai-American Friendship, Major Cineplex, McDonald’s, VGI Global Media. Contributors Tilleke & Gibbins and US-ASEAN and partners; Meridian, Bangkok’s Dance and Music Festival and Google.

Separately, Ambassador Davies shared his thoughts with Daniel and me. This man has such class and dignity. He reminds me of an actor, but I can’t figure out who. I asked what his first thought was when he learned he was to be assigned to Thailand. “I was naturally very excited. Jackie and I counted ourselves lucky to be chosen for Thailand. I was also honoured.

To represent the United States to the government and people of Thailand is a big responsibility. But above all, I knew it would be a pleasure to serve here and to get to know the people of Thailand and to see the country.” I asked what, if any, misconceptions about your country have you heard about being here. “The Thai and American people understand each other well and have a great affection towards one another. About 75,000 Americans live in Thailand and around 300,000 Thais are living in the U.S.

Many of those have become U.S. citizens. Last year, the annual number of American visitors to Thailand surpassed one million. There is a strong interest among Thai students to travel and study in America. There are more than 7,000 Thai students studying in the United States today. There is one common misconception we hear from Thais: that it is difficult to obtain a U.S. visa. This isn’t true. Most Thais can get a visa to visit the United States in just a day or two.

Specialised visas like student visas can take longer.” I also wanted to know if the Ambassador had any misconceptions about Thailand. “I had visited Thailand before I was posted here, but had spent very little time outside Bangkok; I was surprised and happy to see the huge cultural and natural diversity of Thailand. Both my wife and I enjoy meeting different people, learning about Thai history and trying regional cuisines. We’ve loved visiting the resort communities in the South, the mountains in the North, and the towns and villages of the East and Northeast. We often visit nearby destinations like Khao Yai, Ayutthaya or Kanchanaburi.” What impresses you most about the Thai people?

“Of course, their warmth. They are as friendly as their international reputation. Everywhere we have visited, we have been welcomed with warm smiles and kindness.” What do you miss the most about your home country? “Naturally one of the challenges for all diplomats living abroad, whether they are Americans serving in SE Asia or Thai diplomats serving in Washington D.C., Los Angeles or elsewhere, is the distance from friends and family who remain at home. Though we grow used to it, we of course miss our loved ones in the United States. Luckily our two daughters, son-in-law and our granddaughters have visited us here often.”

Great and Good Friend

An average day for the Ambassador starts with breakfast together with his wife and the daily papers. “After breakfast I head to the Embassy (not far away). Meetings with colleagues and visitors or around town with Thai counterparts. Telephone calls with U.S. government offices back in the States.

I also try to go out at least once a month to visit a province.” What about exercise, I was curious to know; “Well, I do exercise most mornings. I run on the treadmill and do weights. During weekends I get out for walks and swimming. Both my wife and I like to keep active. Are you a night owl or an early bird? “I would say probably more an early bird. I feel fresh in the morning. I suppose, at a younger age, I was more a night owl, but today when I attend evening events, I try not to be out too late.”

Have you been able to travel around outside Thailand to discover the rest of Asia? “Yes, as Bangkok has such a central position in Asia and there are great flight connections, we have been able to visit all 5 of the neighbouring countries. We have also managed to visit 40 provinces so far. In January we spent a weekend in Penang, which we enjoyed very much.” Do you have a favourite destination?

“Well, we have visited Sukhothai, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Koh Samui, Koh Chang many times, and many more destinations, so I find it hard to pick just one. They all have their own beauty and charm. I would like to encourage all Americans to travel around Thailand. The beaches are world class, the culinary diversity is endless. If you haven’t been to Kamphaeng Phet yet, I really encourage you to go there.

We were so impressed with the UNESCO World Heritage Sites we toured.” I also had to ask about the Ambassadors Thai and if he takes classes. “Mai khuay dii thaorai,” I got as an answer. “Thai is a beautiful but difficult language for us. Both Jackie and I have taken weekly classes with great teachers. I think it has helped, but for official meetings I have the indispensable help of our excellent interpreter Khun Duen.” Do you like Thai food and can you eat spicy food?

“In Bangkok you have a bouquet of the best food in the world and to be fortunate to eat Thai food every day is one of the best thing with being assigned to the Kingdom. I can take the heat, the spicier the better” he says with a big smile. Have you any favourite restaurant in Bangkok? “We went lately to Jay Fai’s street food restaurant and her crab omelette was one of the best tasting dishes I’ve had for years.” What is your most memorable experience since you arrived here? Here the Ambassador tells the same as all Ambassador’s I have interviewed of late.

“To attend the Royal Cremation Ceremony for His Late Majesty King Rama IX. We know that all Ambassadors have a goal, something they want to achieve while staying in Thailand, what is yours? “During the solemn mourning period for His Late Majesty King Bhumibol, I learnt a lot about his life and work. On his visit to the U.S. in 1960, he talked to Congress and the American people and said; “Friendship of one people for another… assuredly guarantees peace and progress.”

It has been my goal to promote the people-to-people friendship he spoke of. That is the reason we are devoting 2018 to a yearlong celebration of the Thai-U.S. friendship bicentennial.” Any specific wish for the Thai people? “First of all, peace, prosperity, happiness and reconciliation and that the Thai people will know that the people of the U.S. will always stand by them.”

If you could choose your next destination, where would it be? “I haven’t been thinking very much about that, but maybe somewhere closer to our Washington DC home.” My last and favourite question; If you could pick one person in the whole world to have a private dinner with, who would it be?

“If I could travel back in time, I would have loved to be assigned as Ambassador to the Court of Rama IV to have dined with his Majesty King Mongkut. He was a remarkable historical figure, a diplomat, linguist, scientist and scholar. It is said that he could talk about any subject – from eclipses to electricity, and from geography to geopolitics. That would be remarkable.” Thank you, Ambassador Davies, for an interesting afternoon at your beautiful residence.

Friend

We know that all Ambassadors have a goal, something they want to achieve while staying in Thailand, what is yours? “During the solemn mourning period for His Late Majesty King Bhumibol, I learnt a lot about his life and work. On his visit to the U.S. in 1960, he talked to Congress and the American people and said; “Friendship of one people for another… assuredly guarantees peace and progress.”

It has been my goal to promote the people-to-people friendship he spoke of. That is the reason we are devoting 2018 to a yearlong celebration of the Thai-U.S. friendship bicentennial.”Any specific wish for the Thai people?

“First of all, peace, prosperity, happiness and reconciliation and that the Thai people will know that the people of the U.S. will always stand by them.” If you could choose your next destination, where would it be?

“I haven’t been thinking very much about that, but maybe somewhere closer to our Washington DC home.”My last and favourite question; If you could pick one person in the whole world to have a private dinner with, who would it be?

“If I could travel back in time, I would have loved to be assigned as Ambassador to the Court of Rama IV to have dined with his Majesty King Mongkut. He was a remarkable historical figure, a diplomat, linguist, scientist and scholar. It is said that he could talk about any subject – from eclipses to electricity, and from geography to geopolitics. That would be remarkable.” Thank you, Ambassador Davies, for an interesting afternoon at your beautiful residence.

Interview

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